Journaling

A belated happy 2018!

The festive season has come and gone, we’ve picked the discarded Quality Street wrappers from our somewhat ruffled feathers, put the empty Jack Daniels bottles out for recycling, and gotten over the creeping lurgy that seems to have floored so many people in recent weeks. And now, in chilly January (almost February – where did the time go?), we finally have time to take a breath and mull over the year ahead.

We’re pondering big things: the state of sexual politics in a world increasingly fed up with entitled men, the fragility of our planet in the face of climate change and seas of plastic, the ramifications of Brexit, and of course, a second year with the Great Pumpkin in charge of all our fates. But the personal is also political; and a good way to home in on the personal, is to write it down.

Long centuries ago when I was a teenager, whatever else happened over Christmas, I knew I could rely on starting the New Year with a page-a-day diary and a box of Ferrero Rocher from my favourite aunt. This always got a look of disapproval from my mother, who didn’t think I should be encouraged in either eating chocolate or introspection. But it was my introduction to something that’s become one of the linchpins of my life over the years: journaling. So this seems as good a time as any to take an introductory look at what can be, for many people, a valuable spiritual practice.

Journals (from the French jour, a day) and diaries (from the Latin dies, a day) are both much the same thing: a ‘book of days’, in outer events or inner thoughts, usually dated, usually written by hand in a book or series of books. Although, some people’s journals are a looser collection of written material. And you can also keep a journal electronically – which is basically what a blog is – or as sound files.

Published journals offer us insights into other places and times, but the real joy of them is that they’re not dry, straightforward accounts. They give us personal details that mean little to history, but everything to the minds that originated them. Sei Shonagon’s dry, witty descriptions of ‘Elegant things’ and ‘Things that piss me off”.  Samuel Pepys’  encoded details of his sexual exploits. Anne Frank’s speculations about whether her feelings for Peter van Pels are really love or just the result of being cooped up hiding from the Nazis together behind a jam factory. Kurt Cobain’s complaints about his mysterious stomach disorder. We don’t just read these things out of a voyeuristic urge. Ultimately, we need to know that people, no matter what their circumstances, are as human – meaning as flawed, complicated and extraordinary – as we are. And in accordance with the first rule of literature – ‘Show, don’t tell’ – we don’t learn that through grand statements, but through the particulars of their lives. God, here as much as anywhere, is in the details.

Fiction writers, of course, also know the power of the form. In Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, we get into the head of Winston Smith, secretly struggling against a brutal regime, by means of his illicit book from Mr Charrington’s junk shop. At the beginning of Dodie Smith’s charming coming-of-age story I Capture the Castle, we get an immediate picture of eccentric, impoverished Cassandra Mortmain sitting with her feet in the kitchen sink, writing her life in a sixpenny notebook the vicar gave her. And the late Sue Townsend gave us the self-penned chronicles of one Adrian Mole – tormented in turn by spots, family life, politics, poetry, his thwarted love for Pandora and the size of his ‘thing’. These people are as real to us as the people we know – perhaps more so – because we get to see inside them.

Keeping a journal yourself gives you a place to deal with your ‘stuff’, outside of your own head. It can be a practice space for creative endeavours, a sounding board for opinions, and a confessional for the things social or personal restrictions won’t let you say or discuss out loud. If you keep one for any length of time, it’ll find its own focus, and it’ll take you into deeper aspects of your psyche than you realise.

First, you need something to write in. Stationers and office supply stores sell dated diaries in various sizes and formats – on sale, this time of year – but an undated blank book will give you more freedom. You can use a larger book at home, but a small one will slip into your bag or pocket. And keeping a journal on your phone or tablet is also an option.

Privacy is important if you’re going to write freely; if you share your space with other people, make it clear that your journal shouldn’t be read without your say-so. Partners, parents or others who object to your having a place for your private thoughts probably have other issues around trust and boundaries that you need to deal with. In the meantime, lock your journal away or keep it in a location where you know it won’t be touched. If it’s electronic, protect it with a secure password – and always, always keep a backup copy!

If your journal is small enough, you can write in it anywhere. But many people find having a particular quiet spot to go to, and some kind of ritual to get them into journal mode – perhaps lighting a candle or putting on some favourite music – helps create a place where they can feel safe to express their feelings. See what works for you.

What do you write? I’ll come back to this in future posts, but there are some basic techniques that you may find useful to kickstart your journaling.

Freewriting. This stream-of-consciousness method is great for getting straight down to the deeper layers of your mind. Without thinking too hard, just start writing whatever’s in your head. Don’t worry about spelling or punctuation – just keep writing. You can set a timer for a set length of time – even five minutes will do at first – and then stop. Freewriting is most effective if you don’t read it immediately; set it aside somewhere and come back to it after a few days or weeks, or even longer. You’ll notice themes and connections you couldn’t have been aware of at the time.

Lists. Most of us have made ‘to do’ lists, lists of New Year resolutions, and in recent years, what have become known as bucket lists (although, I hate that term – does it mean you should be kicking the bucket when you’re done all the things on your list?). But there are lots of other possibilities. Try a gratitude list, list of things you believe, or no longer do, the pros and cons of a course of action you’re planning, your favourite or least favourite things in any category, your fears, things you want to change…

(Of the famous diarists I mentioned earlier, Shonagon is particularly known for her list-making. And if you like this method of dealing with your thoughts, you may want to check out Lisa Nola’s series of Listography books.)

Letters. Many journalers draft letters they intend to actually send, but you can also write to those with no forwarding address: people who are no longer on this earth, God/Goddess/Spirit, your guardian angel, fairy godmother, inner child, muse, imaginary friend, a current or ongoing issue in your life, a body part you’ve had an awkward relationship with, or any other being or entity you choose. You can also try writing their reply.

Dialogue. Rather than a continuous letter, alternate words in a dialogue directly with the chosen recipient. Simply write your question, then their response, then yours, and so on. Act as if, and see what happens.

Quotes. Your journal is a good place to put down anything you hear or read that moves, inspires or intrigues you. Always try to write a few lines, at least, about what it means to you.

Also, if you’re going to try any of the written explorations I offer in this blog, your journal is a good place for them. In future posts, I’ll be offering journal prompts to get you thinking and hopefully, writing. And, as I said, I’ll explore some of the ideas above in more detail. (Using visual art alongside or instead of writing is a whole other subject, and a big one, and I hope to go into that in more detail elsewhere, too.)

You might also find the following books useful, if you want to look into written journaling further;
The New Diary – Tristine Rainer
Journal to the Self – Kathleen Adams
Writing and Being – G. Lynn Nelson
Life’s Companion – Christina Baldwin
The Creative Journal – Lucia Capacchione

I can vouch for all these personally, but if you have any other favourites, please feel free to share them.

While journals can no doubt be Very Serious Business, perhaps the final word on them goes to Gwendolen Fairfax, in Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest:
‘I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read in the train.’

Life may not always be sensational, but take the time to look at the small moments a little more closely, and they can be more significant than you think.

The story is the song

One evening a couple of weeks back, going down the rabbit-hole of links that is YouTube, I chanced upon a song I hadn’t heard in some years. Canadian songsmith Gordon Lightfoot was best known in my youth here in the UK for the love song ‘If You Could Read My Mind’. But in his own country, his most famous hit concerns a historical event:

The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down
Of the big lake they call Gitche Gummee;
The lake, it is said, never gives up her dead
When the skies of November turn gloomy…

So begins ‘The Wreck of the Edmund Fitgerald’, the story of a cargo ship lost on Lake Superior on November 10th, 1975, with the death of all twenty-nine crew members. The exact cause has never been found, but it remains the worst tragedy on a body of water that’s claimed many lives over the years.

(The line – from an actual First Nations proverb – about the lake never giving up her dead isn’t just a poetic way of saying that Superior demands human deaths. It’s an observation of a local quirk of forensics. Drowned bodies usually float to the surface of the water after a short while, because of the gases released by decomposition bacteria. But in the chilly depths of Lake Superior, the bacteria can’t survive, and the bodies remain submerged. And dives made to the Fitzgerald, before the Canadian government banned further exploration, did indeed spot bodies in the wreckage.)

Listening to the song, I was reminded of something from my schooldays. A much older poem, about another shipwreck:

Half ow’r, half ow’r to Aberdour,
‘Tis fifty fathoms deep,
And there lies good Sir Patrick Spens
With the Scots lords at his feet.

Those are the closing lines of the sixteenth-century Border Ballad, ‘Sir Patrick Spens’. The King of Scotland, it relates, decides he wants to marry ‘the King’s daughter o’ Norroway’, and calls on the knight of the title to be his ‘skeely skipper’ and sail to fetch the promised bride. As you can gather, it doesn’t end well.

Whether Sir Patrick existed, and which King wanted him to sail, is far from certain, but that’s the way with folklore. Some of the Border Ballads were even older and more mythic, like ‘Thomas Rhymer”, the tale of the semi-legendary poet, Thomas of Erceldoune, and his abduction by the ‘Queen of fair Elfland’ – returning to mortal lands after seven years, blessed – or cursed – with ‘the tongue that can never lie’. ‘Tam Lin’ has a similarly magical tale of a young woman, Janet, who becomes pregnant by the eponymous hero and has to rescue him from captivity among the Faerie.

A ballad, in the Middle Ages, meant a song to dance to (from the same root as ballet). From the 1950s onwards, it’s often referred to an impassioned love song (as in power ballad). But its proper meaning is a song or poem that tells a story. Strictly, it tells that story in the traditional format of stanzas (in the metre called common metre – like ‘Sir Patrick Spens’, above) without a chorus, although there are perfectly good ballads that don’t fit that mould.

Examples? The folk song ‘John Barleycorn’. Coleridge’s ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ – the Romantic poets were fond of the form. The Victorian parlour protest, ‘In The Workhouse: Christmas Day’. W. B. Yeats’ ‘The Ballad of Moll McGee’, which tells the story of a woman in rural Ireland stigmatised for a terrible accident. The Beatles, in less traditional form, have the cheerful ‘Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da’, the dark ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer’, and the small Liverpool tragedy of ‘Eleanor Rigby’, among others.

Many ballads focus on tales of death, injustice or vengeance, which is probably why there’s a sub-category, the murder ballad, beloved of traditions like blues and country. A wonderfully enigmatic example is ‘In the Pines’ – also known as ‘Black Girl’, or in its best-known modern incarnation, as sung by the blues legend Leadbelly and later covered by Nirvana, ‘Where Did You Sleep Last Night?’ That one has a convoluted history that goes back to who knows where and when – the Appalachians? Ireland? – with guilt, infidelity and a horrible railroad accident (or is it?) thrown into the mix.

Ballads, by their nature, give the cast of folklore to real events, but they also evoke memory. The traditional form is designed to be easy to recall, and sing, if you have a tune. It’s a form that could do with reviving for more recent events, perhaps – maybe you can think of some suitable subjects.

We’re in a time of year when we’re still remembering the dead. The war dead, over this coming weekend, in particular; the drowned, if you live near Lake Superior; but there’s another anniversary today that we shouldn’t forget. So here’s my own attempt at a ballad…

There lived a man in Germany,
Of hated memory there,
With cruel heart and cruel eyes
And stupid facial hair;

And bitter at the war’s defeat
And unemployment queues,
In prison cell he wrote a book
That pointed at the Jews.

He rose to power, and sealed his laws
Upon the written page,
Forbidding them to hold a post
Or earn an honest wage,

And many hid themselves away,
And many upped and fled,
For all could see those laws implied
That they were better dead.

Young Herschel lived in Paris then,
And he received one night
A postcard from his Polish kin
That told him of their plight.

He bought himself a gun, and to
The Embassy did go,
And shot a German diplomat,
That all the world might know.

The Führer left his dinner guests
On hearing of the news;
His propagandists rose to call
For vengeance on the Jews.

‘Make no official word,’ they said,
‘For rioting today;
But make no move to stop it
If it happens anyway.’

That night they burned the synagogues
And ripped the Torah scrolls,
And rounded up for labour camps
Some thirty thousand souls;

And glass was smashed on Jewish shops,
While many stood to cheer;
And word was sent to the police
They weren’t to interfere.

And when it all was over
In the cold November dawn,
They fined the Jews a billion marks
To add onto their scorn.

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That later times should not forget
What after came to pass,
History names it Kristallnacht,
The Night of Broken Glass;

For where hate leads to broken glass –
This warning should be spoken –
Will human souls, and bodies too,
By that same hate be broken.

Me, too.

(CONTENT WARNING: This post contains discussion of sexual assault.)
If you’re been watching the news for the past couple of weeks, you won’t have been able to remain unaware of Harvey Weinstein. The Magpie wasn’t exactly au fait with the machinations of Hollywood, but now I’m all too familiar with his name (and face – I wish news agencies would realise that once a story like this breaks, it makes the image of the alleged perpetrator triggering for many of us).

Activist Tarana Burke came up with the suggestion that women should tweet or otherwise share the phrase #Metoo if they, themselves, had been the victim of sexual harassment, abuse or rape by men. And women did exactly that – in their millions. My Facebook feed has been full of it all week. Women from all walks of life, of all races, all religions, straight, gay, trans, young and old, of all appearances, wearing all kinds of clothing at the time, have been preyed upon by men – and again, men of all kinds, from teen boys to grandfathers, household names to next-door neighbours, boyfriends and husbands and classmates and work colleagues, teachers and bosses and strangers on buses.

It’s depressing enough, even if it hasn’t happened to you personally, to know that this kind of abuse is virtually ubiquitous. That’s part of the idea of the hashtag: to confirm to our sisters (if we were under the illusion that we were alone – and by not talking about this, we perpetuate that myth and keep ourselves isolated) that no, this is not an anomaly. And to show the men in our lives, including the good ones who wouldn’t dream of doing such things, but who remain unaware because it doesn’t happen to them – exactly what women are going through, every day of our lives.

And it’s time for this Magpie to lay my cards on the table. Because, yes. Me, too.

I was fourteen when I ended up semi-drunkenly making out with a much older man on a coach trip. My parents, who’d taken me on the trip with their social club, were sitting further up in the coach and didn’t see anything, but a friend alerted them to what was going on. They said nothing until we got home, then laid into me for ‘letting’ a man do that to me. Wasn’t I aware that he was married, a truck driver with a girl in every town? How stupid was I? And so on, and so on. Despite my painful naivety and almost complete lack of any guidance on sex (except ‘don’t’) I was considered big and ugly enough to take care of myself, so it was clearly my fault. It took seeing the Rotherham abuse case, in the news relatively recently, before I realised exactly how wrong it was. Whether I thought wanted it at the time or not, whether I’d been drinking or not, a man in his 40s does not do that to a fourteen-year-old girl. Ever.

Some months later, at a holiday camp, I was chosen as the eldest member of the kids’ club to help out one of the ‘uncles’ (note to anyone unfamiliar with such places: that’s the title commonly given to the children’s entertainers on staff) with a magic act. Lulled into false security by getting to handle a real live rabbit, I didn’t realise what was happening until he stuck his tongue down my throat backstage. I ran – but I didn’t tell anyone. Why would I? I knew, now, what the reaction would be.

There were other, later incidents that I won’t go into – including some that happened during my first, failed marriage (and the issue of men who sexually abuse their wives is a whole other can of worms). But I think you get the picture.

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It would be easy to say that other women have had it a lot worse than me, but to compare incidents would be to discount the real damage all these things do. Being catcalled in the street, groped on the Tube, having someone make crude remarks at the office, having your drink spiked at a club, waking up in a bedroom after a college party to find a friend of a friend on top of you…they all have their own peculiar horror. They’re all part of the worldwide, millennia-old assumption by one half of the species that it has the absolute right to the bodies of the other half.

And today? We’d love to think this is historical. That now that there are women (not enough, but some) in boardrooms, colleges, laboratories, law courts and parliaments, this doesn’t happen any more. But it does. It’s happening to a woman, somewhere, right now, as you read this. And it will keep happening. As long as we tell ourselves that ‘boys will be boys’. As long as we tell little girls that boys hurt them ‘because he likes you!’. As long as our media and advertising profit from the notion that what a woman looks like is more important than anything she says or does. As long as women are seen as the prize men get for being heroic, or even semi-decent, or for simply existing. As long as groups made up entirely of men dictate whether or not women have a legal, safe choice as to whether they become, or remain, pregnant. As long as – yes, let’s not be afraid to say it – as long as a man who boasted about grabbing women by the pussy is the head of the most powerful country in the world.

This is a world that cannot continue. We can’t let it. As the heroine Promethea said in Alan Moore’s comic book series: ‘I say end this filthy mess NOW.’

We’re going to need new rituals. For healing ourselves and each other (and here’s where exorcism, which I discussed in this post, could be helpful). But also, and vitally, for change. And asking ‘could we please?’ clearly isn’t going to work any more. Not in this world.

You could interpret what follows as a curse. You could. Or you could look at it as a prayer to the Goddesses – to the archetypical female energies of the universe in all of us – to destroy, not individual men, but the idol of false toxic masculinity. The whole edifice of the patriarchy, which harms most men just as it harms women, if in different ways, yet from which many of them continue to benefit without realising it.

So with that in mind, I say:

If you stalk and harass women,
may the Furies hunt you down.
If you assume your entitlement over women,
may Lilith drive you into the desert.
If you refuse to listen when women say ‘no’,
may Skadi freeze your bones.
If you use drink or drugs to abuse women,
may Sekhmet eat your heart.
If you treat women as things for your consumption,
may Inanna hang you upon a meat-hook.
If you force your will upon women’s bodies,
may Macha curse you with the pains of childbirth.
And if you carry on
abusing us
degrading us
denying our full humanity…

…may Kali dance upon your corpse.

May patriarchy fall. But it won’t fall unless and until all of us – women and men – are willing to come together and work for it.

Birds on a thread

Now, singing as she always must,
A refugee from a love burned black,
Open-eyed through the rising dust
Goes the dust-coloured girl with a child on her back.
– Adrian Mitchell, ‘The Dust’

It starts with a young couple in a car parked overlooking Sheffield, the cheery strains of Chuck Berry singing ‘Johnny B. Goode’ on the car radio. A Phantom jet from a nearby RAF base roars overhead. The young man twiddles the dial, looking for the football results; the girl berates him, he absolves himself by getting out of the car and plucking her a sprig of heather, and the camera pans discreetly away as they start doing what young couples tend to do in parked cars. Cut to a couple of months later, and Jimmy and Ruth, for those are their names, are heading into a hurried marriage, and their respective parents are, more or less willingly, getting used to being future grandparents. It could be any gritty British Northern drama from the 1980s; and as the writer is Barry Hines of Kes fame, you’d expect it to deal with small, personal crises.

But in the meantime, sinister typed captions and a stern voiceover tell us that the USSR has invaded Iran. The USA issues an ultimatum – which is ignored. Ordinary people flee for the country, empty supermarket shelves, and try to follow government instructions on how to build makeshift shelters. But the situation escalates…until 210 megatons of nuclear weaponry fall on the UK. Sheffield, like most of society, is vaporised.

Ruth leaves the shelter of her parents’ cellar to find a devastated world. Amid falling temperatures and rising martial law, she flees to the Peaks, gives birth alone in a barn, and struggles to raise her child (in scenes that remind me of the Adrian Mitchell poem above, which I first read at school). Thirteen years later, after Ruth dies, we see her daughter Jane – ragged, barely articulate, and quite possibly brain damaged – stealing food with two boys, one of whom…but some things are better (or worse) watched than described.

This was Threads, a TV film that haunted the teenage years of every British person of a certain age. An online friend mentioned it again a short while ago, and I looked it up. You can, if you really want to, watch it here. Some of its impact is lessened by it now being a period piece, complete with the Rubik’s Cube, an open Woolworth’s store, and the half-penny still being UK legal tender. But not all. The USSR may be defunct, but there are other, perhaps more dangerous powers in the world now. And the reason a more modern update of Threads hasn’t been made is probably that the more powerful bombs now wouldn’t leave any survivors to even have a story.

As an angry teenage fledgling, this Magpie wanted to join the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, but my parents (staunch conservatives who reckoned that ‘if we didn’t have the bomb, those Russkies would walk all over us’) wouldn’t let me. But I read their literature and told anyone who’d listen that, famously, the survivors of a nuclear war would envy the dead. Much of my proof was drawn from the only times nuclear bombs have been used, at Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, which brought up another problem. I had an uncle whom I never knew, because he died in a labour camp in Java in 1942 – leaving my mother with an implacable, burning hatred of all things Japanese. She couldn’t be convinced that every person in those cities didn’t deserve to be vaporised. (Let’s not even mention the rows we had in my house when I dabbled in Nichiren Buddhism…)

Watching Threads as an adult, I’m struck by little dramatic nuances I didn’t notice before. One in particular was the symbolism of birds. Jimmy’s great obsession is raising zebra finches in a back shed. Ruth later comes and finds the place in ruins, but takes his scorched bird book as a memento of him. Later, Jane and the other feral kids watch a battered video on a TV wired to a generator: the English programme for schools, Words and Pictures (familiar to many of us kids watching), with a jolly, prim presenter exhibiting…a bird’s skeleton. In this wasteland, you wonder, are there any birds left?

We’re familiar in the West with doves as a sign of peace – drawn from the Bible, but ultimately also from them being the creatures of Aphrodite and other ancient love goddesses. In Japan, where, understandably, there’s a strong peace movement, they have their own bird symbol. The crane is an ancient symbol of long life, of good fortune, and of fidelity between married couples; but since 1945, it has another meaning.

Sadako Sasaki was two years old when the bomb fell on Hiroshima. She was blown out of a window, but was apparently unharmed. Ten years later, however, she developed leukaemia from her exposure to radiation. In hospital, a friend told her about an old custom, in which anyone who uses the art of paper-folding, origami, to make a thousand cranes, will be blessed with good luck. Sadako proceeded to cadge all the paper she could find, from nurses, visitors and school friends, to fold her thousand cranes. Versions of the story vary as to whether or not she completed the number before her death; but her friends folded many more cranes that were buried with her. Funds were raised for a statue of her in the Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima; another exists in the Peace Park in Seattle, and both are festooned with strung paper cranes by visitors.

It’s not hard to learn how to fold origami cranes – see here for instructions. There’s something contemplative about the act of folding them – and this particular creation requires precise folds, or it won’t work – something that makes you focus on the moment. On your breath, the paper, the fact of being alive, here, now. Perhaps that’s the aim of the exercise.

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The threads that bind civilisation together are still fragile and frighteningly, easily broken.  In this week, the anniversary of when the bombs fell, maybe take a moment to fold a crane – or two, or ten, or a thousand, which may take you slightly longer – and be mindful. Because in this world, where sabres (and other, more dangerous toys) are still being rattled, someone has to create rather than destroy, and someone has to keep a place for things that fly and sing.

Dancing (or whatever) at Lughnasad

The passing of the year is an odd thing in modern society. Venture into any supermarket right now and you’ll see an array of notebooks, pens, lunchboxes and other paraphernalia, emblazoned with Back to School signs. Now, when yours truly was a kid back in the days of yore – aka the Eighties – this stuff wasn’t promoted till September, when the flowering of purple Michaelmas daisies (our school flower) meant Founder’s Day, and therefore, the start of the new school year, was depressingly close. I think it must be a massive bummer for any kid today to be confronted with the spectre of the autumn term when they haven’t even broken up for the holidays yet.

Some things, though, haven’t changed quite that much. Climate change notwithstanding, the wheat fields are golden and ripe about now, as they have been for centuries in England at about this time of year, and that means Harvest Home, for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere.

The Christian church used to call the beginning of August Lammas, from the Old English for ‘loaf mass’. Modern Pagans sometimes call it that too, or give it the title of the old Irish festival at this time, Lughnasad. The Irish still refer to the month of August as Lúnasa.

Lugh, known as Samildanach – the Many-Skilled – was a god of the arts in their broadest sense. He became associated with the harvest after his foster mother, Tailtiu, died – apparently of exhaustion, after she organised the clearing of the plains of Brega, in the Boyne Valley, for agricultural use – and he held a funeral feast for her at that time. It was commemorated, year after year, well into Christian times, with what became known as the Teltown Games, Irish wakes have traditionally been rowdy, and this one involved bonfires, drinking, feasting, marriages (which were provisional, lasting for a year and a day, and were called Teltown weddings), and athletic contests.

But whatever the story behind it, in all its forms, Lughnasad/Lammas has mainly been a festival of the grain harvest.

It’s become fashionable in recent times to demonise grains, especially wheat. Aside from the people who have actual celiac disease, which is a pretty serious business, lots of people today are shunning gluten because they claim to be ‘sensitive’ to it. Now, I’m all for not eating things that don’t agree with you personally, but all too often this ‘sensitivity’ seems to be code for ‘I’ll be thinner if I don’t eat this’. Giving up common staple foods does tend to have that effect on people, although it may not be either permanent or healthy.  (And some gluten-free or wheat-free products are made more toothsome with suspicious quantities of refined sugar, and weight loss or none, that’s probably not healthy at all.)

The Magpie, thankfully, has no such digestive issues. I’m also sceptical of people who insist that our Palaeolithic ancestors Didn’t. Eat. Grains.  Here’s at least one piece of evidence to the contrary.  Hunter-gatherer diets are and have been incredibly varied depending on where the people in question live, and many of them have involved whatever the local grasses yielded by way of seeds. Also, we humans simply couldn’t have spread and created civilisations as we did without grain-based agriculture. Whether it’s wheat and barley in Europe, rice in Asia, millet in Africa or maize in the Americas, much of the world’s food has been and still is based on grains, and that’s a good enough reason to be thankful for this harvest.

I was once, many years ago, in a fringe theatre company with a guy called William, who claimed to have founded his own religion, which he called Omneism. His chief tenet was that everything was God in its deepest essence, and that therefore you could worship God by appreciating the deepest essence of anything in the world. So if you took the view that, say, beer was God, then you could worship God by appreciating the deepest essence of beer. And you do that by drinking it. So…well, it worked for him.

Worship aside, it can’t hurt to appreciate what we eat. Saying grace before a meal is one version of this. Dianic Witch Z. Budapest has her own kind of grace: eating a sandwich with Thank you, wheat, for dying for me. Thank you, chicken, for dying for me. Thank you, lettuce, for dying for me… That brings you face to face with the fact that we live off other living things. The old ballad of the death of John Barleycorn, and the making of corn dollies, both dramatise that in the case of grain: we really are what we eat.

But at its simplest level, in times when most of us buy our food ready-made, really getting back to basics helps us to reconnect.  To this end, over the weekend I got baking, and here’s the result!

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This is beer bread, and it’s the most incredibly easy bread you can make. You don’t even need to leave it to rise, which is handy for those of us not blessed with an airing cupboard. All you need is:
3 cups of self-raising flour – it MUST be self-raising or it won’t work.
1/8 cup sugar.
1 12oz can of beer – any good beer will do, but avoid ‘lite’ brews. A good real ale is the best.

Simply mix it all together till you get a good stiff dough. Give it a bit of a knead – always great for de-stressing – pop it in a bread pan, and bake it for 35 minutes at 180C or 350F. You get a fairly dense loaf with a slightly beery taste, which is good with butter and jam or strong cheese.

(This recipe, incidentally, comes from the book To Walk A Pagan Path by Alaric Albertsson, which also has basic instructions for a great many other practical hands-on skills to get you back in touch with the natural world, not just for Pagans.)

It’s also not a bad time to consider a more personal harvest. What’s come to fruition for you this year? What seeds to you want to sow for the future?  What needs weeding out of your life to allow a richer crop to come through?

Whether you bake, or brew (beer is another grain product, so a the advice of William the Omneist is also perfectly valid here), or make like our naughty Prime Minister and frolic in a wheat field, take time to think about that. And here’s hoping your harvest is a good one.

Dependence

The Fourth of July is a strange thing for those of us on this side of the Atlantic. Britain is, after all, the country the US attained its independence from on this date in 1776. So the rigmarole around the anniversary has, naturally, always struck many of us as dashed impolite, chaps. Plus, there was an incident that involved wasting good tea, which is a crime tantamount to treason in itself, even without the political implications.

But we also got the help of our US pals in World War II, and among the remnants of that alliance in the Magpie’s parts of the world are a smattering of remaining USAF bases. So round here, there are barbecues on this day, no matter what the British weather throws at us. And our unfortunate pets get the bejeesus scared out of them by the traditional flashes and bangs. And there have even been whispers of red, white and blue baked goods in some local shops. Mr. Magpie thinks it’s not quite right, but as someone who’s kind of treated as an honorary American by my circle of buddies from across the pond, I find it fascinating to observe. (And take part in, if invited. Hot dogs? I’ll have cream cheese and sauerkraut on mine, thanks, but hold the ketchup.)

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Once, many moons ago when I was writing short stories on a more regular basis, and was catching the dissatisfaction of some of my US friends with the Bush administration then in power, I started writing a modern fable in which the rest of the world decided to give the USA its much-vaunted independence for real, totally isolating it from the rest of the planet….by building a wall round the country. I can’t think why I didn’t complete it, but there you go…life is strange sometimes. (Never, ever say any fictional idea is too far-fetched to happen.)

But every time this day comes round, I think about the whole notion of independence. Autonomy – which is more or less the prerequisite for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness – is an essential right for every human being, or should be. But there are places and times where people stress their own autonomy at the expense of other people’s, which was surely never the intention.

And more than that, none of us really are independent in any real sense of the word. We’re all the product of billions of years of physics, millions of years of biology,and thousands of years of human culture. Alan Watts rightly noted that we don’t come into the world, dropped into it from somewhere outside; we grow out of it, as leaves grow out of a tree. We’re inextricably part of it all. From birth, we rely on a vast network of people to feed us, clothe us, educate us, care for our health and well-being and provide us with all the necessities of life, not to mention its luxuries if we can afford them. Not just humans either, because all of us, even the strictest of vegans, feed on other living beings, use the products of the natural world, tread on the same earth and are, ultimately, given energy by the same star.

As individuals, we often forget this. As nations, we’re unfortunately even more prone to isolationism. And when we are aware of our dependence on other people, we’re all too ready to dismiss what they do. The more basic the service, the less likely we are to acknowledge it or reward it – hence the shitty pay and conditions given to people who do things like care for little kids and elderly people, nurse the sick, pick our crops and clean our homes and workplaces.

A few centuries ago, the nation celebrating today imported human beings from Africa, and made them do backbreaking labour that made a few white people stupidly rich (and here I’m not just looking at you, US, because Britain made a pretty pile off the back of slaves too), while dismissing the people who did that work as less than human. These days, slavery is rightly illegal…but it’s been said that we in the Western world have simply exported it, to the dangerous and poorly paid sweatshops of India, China and the Philippines (not to mention the large amount of unpaid work done in American prisons, which have an inmate population larger than any in the developed world, and which disproportionately incarcerate people of colour for minor offences). Out of sight, out of mind…except that as environmentalists say now of throwing away our waste, there is no ‘away’ any more.

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There is actually now an Interdependence Day – on September 12th – but now seems as good a time as any to think about how we depend on others, on a personal and political level. So maybe think about who provided the meat that made that hot dog (OK, maybe not while you’re eating it, but welfare in farming is kind of a big deal). Who grew the wheat that went into the bun. Who picked the salad, brewed the beer, made the T-shirt you’re wearing. Who’s hoovering your office while you have the day off. Who’s going to take care of your trash tomorrow. And while recognising who we depend on, also think of who depends on us. Because if we don’t think anyone has any right to depend on us (which is where all those debates about healthcare and welfare come from, wherever you live), we probably don’t have a right to call ourselves a society at all.

None of this means that we need to put a damper on celebrations. But do it mindfully – and remember that while independence is a great thing, the networks that connect and sustain us, are also something to celebrate and defend. With S’mores, if that’s what floats your boat…

Nolite te bastardes carborundum

Some people like to argue that we live in a post-feminist era. To which the classic answer is: I’ll be post-feminist when society is post-patriarchal. Sadly, it simply ain’t so. Not only are women in some parts of the world having a pretty shitty time of it with lovely things like child marriage, enforced pregnancy, female genital mutilation, dowry murder, and being kept illiterate, poor and powerless – still – but women right here, in the countries we like to think of as ‘civilised’, are threatened with the erosion of many of the rights we’ve taken for granted in the last few decades.

It’s the job of artists to be the prophets of our secular age, and one prophet who famously spoke out about this years ago is the author Margaret Atwood. The Hulu adaptation of her classic dystopia, The Handmaid’s Tale, has come to the UK courtesy of Channel Four, and is rapidly becoming even darker than the book.

In case you haven’t encountered it before, the basis of the plot is that after taking over the USA in a military coup – renaming it the Republic of Gilead – religious fundamentalists solve the problem of plummeting fertility rates by allocating fertile women to rich, childless couples.

These women are referred to as Handmaids, from the Old Testament story of Rachel and Leah, the two sisters both married to the patriarch Jacob. Gutted that she doesn’t seem to be able to pop out sons like her sister, Rachel gets her ‘handmaid’ – aka female slave – Bilhah, to have sex with Jacob and conceive on her behalf.

And this is exactly what happens in Gilead: once a month, the man of the house rapes the Handmaid while she lies between his wife’s legs, in the hope that she may conceive a healthy baby – who’ll be treated as their child. Handmaids wear distinctive red clothing with headdresses that hide their faces in public, are forbidden from reading, and don’t even get to keep their names: the narrator of the story is one Offred, literally ‘of Fred’, from the name of the man who owns her. The only other approved roles for women in this brave new world are as Marthas, servants who carry out housework and menial tasks, or Aunts, older women who train the Handmaids and wield a mean taser for anyone who steps out of line. Women too old to breed or work, ‘gender traitors’ (LGBT people), and other dissidents are executed, or sent off to distant colonies to clean up toxic waste until they die.

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Atwood has famously said that she didn’t put anything in The Handmaid’s Tale that hadn’t happened somewhere in the world, at some time. In online discussions, people like to turn attention to what’s happening to women in countries under fundamentalist Islamic rule. But all fundamentalisms are alike, and we now have people in our own culture who believe the world would be best run along Old Testament lines, propping up both the Trump presidency in the US and the Tory government in the UK. We have men ruling that women shouldn’t be able to obtain contraception or abortion, not even if pregnancy would kill them. We have men who won’t be alone in a room with a woman they’re not married to. We have men who refer to women as ‘hosts’ and pregnancy by rape as a ‘blessing from God’. Like it or not, Gilead is closer to home that we’d like to imagine.

This Magpie read the book when it was first around, in the 1980s. Probably the most chilling moment is one that was slightly tweaked in the TV series: the moment where, at the beginning of the pre-Gilead crackdown, June and her friend Moira go to get money out of an ATM and find their accounts emptied – allocated, it turns out, to their male next of kin. Every now and again, when I’m waiting in line for cash from the hole in the wall, depending on exactly how dystopian the news has been, I find my mind drifting to that moment, and ask: what if? Which is what the best speculative fiction should always make you wonder.

Reviewers have commented how much actor Elizabeth Moss, the Offred of the TV series, can convey by looks, when she’s often forbidden to speak. It’s also been noted that the little power she clings to lies in her tiny acts of rebellion. Spitting out the macaroon given to her by the super-patronising lady of the house. ‘Accidentally’ showing a bare leg in front of her Commander’s male driver. Throwing back a line of scripture at Aunt Lydia, showing that while God may bless the meek, he also sure as hell overthrows the mighty. Little things can be powerful.

In our own culture, we need to fight back on the large scale, true. But there’s also room for the smaller acts of defiance, in our own lives.

Look at Gilead’s ideal of womanhood. Look at it closely, because it’s also the ideal of every fundamentalist ideology, everywhere. Then ask yourself how you can defy that stereotype…

They want us silent. So speak out. Talk to other women about how your lives are, what your hopes and fears are. Blog or vlog your thoughts. Respond to posts on social media. Call out unacceptable behaviour or lies. Get involved in politics, if that’s your thing. Sign a petition or make a speech or share a post. Support organisations that fight for free speech. Or like the former Offred – who left the joke-Latin admonition of this post title scratched into the wall of her closet – leave your mark somewhere where it can be found by chance. Maybe not graffiti, but a Post-it note on a bathroom wall works just as well.

They want us obedient. So rebel. Do the unexpected. Be unladylike. Break a stupid rule (if you can break it safely and without causing harm to yourself or others). Question the ones you’re not sure of. Stand up to authority. Practice saying No to small things, and remember that No is a complete sentence and you don’t have to explain yourself.

They want us modest and self-effacing. So stand up. Brag a little. List the things you’re proud of, and own them. Claim your ideas at work. Be noticed. Wear what you want, where you want. Be that rainbow-haired, tattooed, pierced, unshaven, outspoken chick the men’s rights activists love to hate.

They want us de-sexualised and dedicated to a biological function. So own your sexuality and body. Say no to unwanted touch and comments, coercive or merely blah sexual encounters. Say yes to pleasure. Experiment with toys and erotica, alone or with a partner. Visit your local clinic, get a Well Woman exam and sort your contraception. Donate to Planned Parenthood, if you’re in the US, or another women’s health organisation. Volunteer.

They want us ignorant. So learn. Read! Read Atwood’s book, first and foremost, if you haven’t. Read other feminist authors, magazines, websites. Learn to love your library. Support education for girls. Donate feminist books to a local school. Make and share zines.

They want us powerless. So claim your power. Decide what your own bottom line is as to what you will and won’t accept. Draft your own Bill of Rights. Make decisions. Own your own life, in whatever ways you can. And if you’re in a situation where that’s hard right now, for reasons beyond your control (because not all of us have the privilege of being able to control our own lives)…remember that there are others out here who are fighting for you. Hold onto that, if nothing else.

You’ll notice that many of these actions overlap, and that’s as it should be – every act we take, no matter how small, reverberates in varied and sometimes unexpected dimensions of our lives. And in other people’s, too. The Post-it that urges a sister to love herself may spur her to support a friend in leaving an abusive boyfriend, which in turn gets her teenage niece interested in women’s issues in politics, which… There’s no knowing where a small action may end up.

And even just scratches on a closet wall, seen by one person, can change that person’s world. Just by letting them know that they’re not alone, and the bastards – however abrasive they may be – can’t grind us down forever.

I simply remember…

It’s been another one of those weeks. I had a different blog post entirely, all ready to roll, and then…as John Lennon once pointed out, life happens while you’re making other plans. Or in this case, death and destruction does.

The people in Manchester had other plans. They went for a night out, to see a pop concert. To dance and sing and buy Ariana Grande merch and shriek and go wild and have fun. They never dreamed it would end in explosions, screaming of the wrong kind, desperate people trying to find their relatives. Their parents. Their children.

I said to someone earlier in the week, if I could begin to fathom how anyone gets the idea that their god wants them to kill little girls, I’d be working in criminal investigation. It simply is not comprehensible to the vast majority of us. We can say that fear and uncertainty make people cling to belief systems that stress rigidity, control and purity, and there’s good research that bears that out (and no, it doesn’t apply just to Islam, at all – not that this poisonous worldview is anything like the faith the majority of Muslims follow). We can try to understand, but on a human level, words fail us.

There are things we can do. We can refuse to let ourselves be ruled by hatred and a need for revenge. We can shun the generalisation that makes everyone who looks or dresses a certain way a potential source of violence and fear. We can reach out. We can see the people who held onto what it means to be human: the police, the firefighters, the homeless guy who aided the injured, the Muslim cab driver who ferried kids to meet their parents for nothing, the Sikh shopkeeper handing out free soft drinks to the mourners at the memorial.

And we can hold onto what’s good in life. What’s real. What matters. The things they wanted to kill: music, fun, families, friends, laughter, community. And the myriad of small things that make life worth living.

The BBC Radio 4 series, Soul Music, looks each week at a piece of music – a classical aria, a pop song, a favourite hymn – that has meant something deep and special to various people. This week’s choice happened to be a song that I’ve known myself since childhood, thanks to a primary school music teacher who had a thing about Broadway musicals. Mrs McManus, I salute you – even though it must have sounded weird for the parents, hearing a choir of eight-year-olds singing ‘Sixteen Going On Seventeen’, long before any of us knew what a roué or a cad was – for making sure that, at forty-hem-hem, I still know all the lyrics to every song in The Sound of Music. And in particular, to ‘My Favourite Things’.

It sounds super corny, but Maria von Trapp’s philosophy for calming frightened kids as a storm rages outside isn’t a bad one at all, for many negative circumstances. For one thing, it’s distracting. When you’re out of immediate danger, but still have dread and anxiety hanging over you, keeping your thoughts occupied with the small blessings of life can stop you ruminating.

But perhaps there’s even more to it than that. C.S. Lewis once had his learned devil, Screwtape, complain that humans, pesky creatures that they are, can be kept from the kind of mindless conformity that often leads to evil, simply by their apparently trivial tastes and preferences:

The man who truly and disinterestedly enjoys any one thing in the world, for its own sake, and without caring twopence what other people say about it, is by that very fact fore-armed against some of our subtlest modes of attack… I have known a human defended from strong temptations to social ambition by a still stronger taste for tripe and onions.

Fear tries to paralyse us from enjoying life and being human with each other. Fearful and violent and greedy worldviews – be they from religions or governments or commercial interests or just people who’d like to control us for their own ends – don’t trust joy. So to get back to the grounding of our selves, those favourite things are a lot more important than you might think.

Julia Cameron is thinking of this when she suggests that blocked artists make a list of a hundred things they love. It’s not a bad exercise for anyone who feels life isn’t moving forward as it should. But you have to be very specific.

Fresh mango.
Sunlight on old polished wood.
The fuzzy bit on the top of a chaffinch’s head.
Nirvana’s
MTV Unplugged in New York.
Pesto pizza from Hot Mama’s on East Pine.
The smell of the earth after rain.
Walking barefoot on cool terracotta tiles.
Seeing people with wild coloured hair.
Feta cheese.
Passing an unexpected patch of bluebells.

Not things of great consequence (except the Nirvana Unplugged set, that killed MTV from the inside, I’m telling you). But things that make the world a little more bearable for me.

You’ll have your own list, and it’ll alter over time. But take the time to make one, often, and see if it doesn’t change your mood, just a little.

There have been a few covers of the song, and one of the more famous ones is by this gentleman, who’d been to some dark places and come out the other side with his joy intact. So here’s John Coltrane. Because whatever happens, life, and love, are what wins.

Whatever you call us

Let’s talk about words. Words are important.

A great many words get thrown around these days online, some of them more stinging than others. It’s not uncommon, now, for people to turn round and call you a bully, or worse, for calling them a racist…even when they’ve demonstrated the fact by doing things like, you know, supporting someone who says he wants to build a wall to keep out all those rapists and drug dealers from south of the border.

But the words they fling back at you, like so much monkey poop, are uglier still. Is there any kind of creative magic we can work on this sort of ugliness?

We could take a cue from the groups of people who are already defending their rights. Some people of colour take pride in using the n-word to describe themselves. LGBT people unabashedly use the term queer as an identifier. Some feminists have reclaimed derogatory terms like bitch and slut. The Fat Acceptance movement prefers their F-word to any of the euphemisms a diet-obsessed culture tiptoes round it with. Some people with mental illnesses have adopted the term Mad Pride, and a lovely friend of mine, a wheelchair user with MS (sadly now departed from this plane) used to refer to her ‘crip rights’. It takes time, but adopting and using the terms other people have used to ‘other’ you can be effective.

With that in mind, can we deconstruct some of the insults spewing from the nastier corners of the Web today, turn them around and reclaim them as something more positive? I think we can. Consider these…

Liberal. I for one simply cannot understand why this is considered an insult these days…except, of course, by anyone for whom liberals are those nasty people who want to allow non-Christian religions and not allow you to take a gun into your local kindergarten. The word itself comes from the Latin liber, free. Same root as Liberty. Gosh. Liberal itself is a synonym for allowing, generous, relaxed. Remind me what’s so bad about that?

SJW. This, of course, is an acronym for Social Justice Warrior. Yup, apparently fighting for social justice – you know, striving to follow in the footsteps of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr, and Angela Davis, and Harvey Milk, and many other brave people who wanted the world to be a better, more equal place – is now a negative thing. Who knew? Personally, I don’t think you have to be a Warrior of social justice if that’s not your natural role…others are available. The world will always need Social Justice Bards, after all.

White knight. This is mostly used by those charming gentlemen (cough! cough!) of the ‘Men’s Rights Activist’ movement, which i won’t describe here if you don’t already know about it, but let’s just say it’s less about fighting for actual issues that affect men and more about yelling at feminists. They mean a man who, in their eyes, rides in to ‘rescue’ pathetic whiny females when we’re beaten by their, the MRAs’, infallible masculine logic (COUGH!). Dubious colour symbolism (and equally dubious morality of actual medieval knights) aside, I think we should be glad when people with privilege act as allies to people who lack privilege. We used to call that being a decent human being.

PC. For Politically Correct, which quality in British tabloid newspapers must always legally have the words ‘gone mad’ attached to it. Much as people would love to think it means Muslims getting pictures of bacon sandwiches banned from Facebook, political correctness is a mockers’ term for recognising people’s differences and treating them with respect. Which we also used to call being a decent human being. Notice a theme developing here?

Cuck. Ah, this one. This is surely a harder one to deal with, isn’t it? Ultimately from the old term cuckold, meaning a man whose wife is unfaithful to him (derived from cuckoos laying their eggs in other birds’ nests); used as an insult, it implies that you’re ‘unmasculine’ or weak. I think of what the mother of modern witchcraft, Doreen Valiente, said about the curious tradition of the cuckold being depicted with horns on his head. Was it, she speculated, that horns once symbolised the pagan Horned God, and that the sexually liberated women he consorted with made his horns, to later morality, a symbol for any man who’d been humiliated by ‘his’ woman’s infidelity? It’s folklore, but it’s a good story. And if the people who hate you use terms that show they’re in favour of controlling and owning other human beings, you have to figure you’re doing something right.

Snowflake. Aren’t we all delicate, fragile little things, they argue, melting away at the slightest hint of an insult? Well, clearly these people have never actually had much acquaintance with snow. It looks pretty, but enough of it can block roads and delay trains…and in the right place, cause an avalanche. Plus, put enough pressure on it and it becomes ice…and ice can, given enough time, carve out whole valleys and fjords. Snowflakes are unique and lovely and powerful, and you underestimate them at your peril.

These aren’t the only ugly terms you’ll hear out there. Feel free to take any others you find and claim them for yourself. Take the words and make them into something. Write them in postcards. Print them on a T-shirt. Or use whatever creative arts you use. (This piece of beading is going to become a pin brooch.)

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Above all, remember: you define yourself. You don’t have to believe what they say you are. And if they can use words against you, you can use them right back.

Julian of Norwich: a cosmic optimist

Today, an introduction to a local heroine of mine.

Living in East Anglia as I have for twenty years or so, my nearest – and favourite – city to go to on a weekend is Norwich. Norwich has a famous and impressive cathedral, but it also has a multitude of smaller medieval churches: some converted into galleries, music venues and in one case, a Puppet Theatre, and some still used for their original purpose.

Just off Rouen Road, up a side street where you might easily miss it, stands the church of St Julian the Hospitaller, the patron saint of wayfarers. Rebuilt after damage in World War II, the church has a small room attached to one side of the nave. In the 14th century, this cell was for many years the home of a remarkable lady who wrote the first book by a woman in the English language, but whom most people hadn’t heard of until a few decades ago.

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Julian of Norwich – her statue shown here on the front of Norwich Cathedral –  was an anchorite: an unusual calling today, but pretty common then. She took religious vows like a nun – of poverty, chastity and obedience, but also of solitude. After a ceremony in which she had the funeral rites read over her to show she was dead to the world, she spent her life mostly in this one room, and in an attached walled garden. She had a window into the church to take communion, and another curtained one onto the street where passers-by could come to receive spiritual counsel from her. She had a couple of servant girls to do errands in the outside world. And because the Ancrene Riwle, the instruction book for anchorites, recommends keeping a cat, Julian’s usually depicted with one. She would have spent her days in prayer, meditation, reading, and probably needlework on church vestments or garments for the poor.

Julian took up this life after a dramatic experience that she describes in her book, Shewings. When she was about thirty, in 1373, she was taken so seriously ill that her mother fetched in the local priest to give her the Last Rites. But when he held up a crucifix in front of her face, she had a series of visions so profound that they changed her life. She recovered completely, and spent her years of near-solitude pondering her visions and their meaning.

We don’t know much about her background. She wasn’t a nun before her illness; at her age, she’d have long been married with children, but the Black Death had been ravaging England and she may have lost her family to it. We’re fairly sure she was literate (she claims she ‘knows no letters’, but that probably just meant she couldn’t write in Latin), which shows she was middle-class. One theory I like is that she may have been the daughter of a cloth merchant – Norwich was very big in the wool trade, and there’s a fair amount of textile-related imagery in Julian’s book. Like most anchorites, she took the name of her church’s patron saint, so we don’t know her original name. But her personality shines through the text.

Shewings translates from the original Middle English as A Revelation of Divine Love, and that’s the overriding theme of it. As a medieval Catholic, her visions, triggered by that crucifix, involve a lot of the gory details of the death of Christ. But they also contain some striking dialogues with the living divine presence, and some equally striking imagery. Julian pictures herself walking at the bottom of the sea and knowing herself to be perfectly safe in God’s protection. She tells a parable of God as a master who sends his servant on an errand, but can’t be angry at him when he accidentally falls into a ditch. She pictures the world as a hazelnut held in the palm of her hand – a tiny thing, yet sustained by love. And she affirms that divine providence really does think of everything:

A man walks upright, and the food in his body is held in, as in a very fine purse. And when his time of need comes, the purse is opened and closed again, in the most seemly manner. And it is God who does this; as is shown, when it is said that he comes down to us in our humblest need.

Yes, you did just read that right: Julian is saying that God’s love for humankind is shown in the remarkable way we’re able to take a dump. (Pathology geek note: the comparison of that part of the anatomy to a purse’s drawstring opening was used in medical texts at the time, another indication that Julian knew her books. It’d be interesting to know what she’d have made of Martin Luther, who was said to have had conversations with Satan while sitting on the privy…)

There are two features of Julian’s book that modern readers are probably drawn to, though. The first is her description of God as ‘our Mother’. Female imagery for the Divine, even within the Abrahamic traditions, isn’t unknown – witness Jesus himself longing to gather Jerusalem under his wings like a mother hen – but it’s so often either been overlooked, or actively suppressed, that hearing it feels radical.

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The other is her famous assertion that ‘all shall be well’. Although Julian’s times really needed this sort of hope – the Black Death I already mentioned, but there was also ongoing war between England and France, and from her cell Julian wouldn’t just have been able to smell fish from the docks just downhill, but the faint aroma of burning heretics – she didn’t just mean it in a here-and-now sense. Her optimism was cosmic in its scale. In her faith, you got eternity with God in Heaven if you believed and repented, everlasting torment in hell if you didn’t. Julian was deeply troubled at the idea of eternal suffering, but in her vision, Christ affirmed that ‘I will make all things well’ – that somehow, at the end of it all, everything would be made good and whole and healed. That, to use the phrase from Judaism, tikkun olam, the healing of the world in which we all participate would one day be accomplished.

She comes to the brink, in fact, of affirming that everyone – including Jews, Muslims and pagans – would be saved, somehow, without violation of free will or Church doctrine. Universalism was a heresy, and Julian was canny enough to know that it might too easily be the smell of her burning flesh drifting across the River Wensum. So she trod veeeery carefully…so much so that the monks who transcribed her words later left stern warnings in the comments about making sure you kept to Church doctrine, and you still come across evangelicals today who rage about her ‘sentimentality’ (meaning she puts human feelings ahead of rigid dogma, and hooray for that).

Julian, perhaps because that aroma of heresy clings to her, has never officially been canonised as a saint, although many churches keep her feast day on May 8th, the day on which she had her visions. But I don’t think you need officialdom to affirm anyone’s sacredness, and Julian has become a guide and comforter to many people, of all faiths and none, who read her book and visit her shrine every year. As a Pagan who, nevertheless, can draw inspiration from plenty of places outside my own spiritual remit, I find in her a fellow writer (a task that always involves solitude), a woman with a message in a time when women’s voices were dismissed and sidelined, a rebel with a cause who managed to rock the boat just enough to not fall out, and a visionary with one foot in the real world who had to try and bring her visions down to earth into a form other people might be able to understand.

But I’ll leave you with her words:

Learn it well: Love was His meaning. Who shewed it thee? Love. What shewed He thee? Love. Wherefore shewed it He? For Love. Hold thee therein and thou shalt learn and know more in the same. But thou shalt never know nor learn therein other thing without end.

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(This portrait of Julian is from the mural of the Dancing Saints in St Gregory’s Episcopalian Church in San Francisco, a church with views almost as eclectic as my own on what makes for sacredness. You can find out more about the mural here.)

And while the songwriter Sydney Carter is best known for ‘Lord of the Dance’, he also wrote this, about Julian and her hope: