Discovering the Bean Feasa

This similar to an article  which originally ran in Plant Healer Magazine, but I’ve updated it a bit based on new things I’ve read and questions students have asked.”  <3 Stephany

Recreation of an Iron Age Irish roundhouse.  The early days of domestic medicine.

During my studies with Sean, he shared with me an article written by Kenneth Proefrock in which Kenneth states “the conclusions our ancestors were able to draw regarding the subtleties of health and healing must still be within us.”[1]    I loved it so much, I contacted Kenneth who kindly provided me with enough information that I could cite him in my thesis.

For some reason that single statement spoke to me deeply.  I know I’ve mentioned that before but my explanation didn’t make sense to some people. I guess I felt like it gave I me some direction at a time when I needed it. I had made it through  most of my biomedical training  for the most part unscathed and was studying Ayurveda.  I don’t even know why–probably because all the cool kids like to talk about Ayurveda or TCM and having learned my plants from an old Gaelic dude in the SCA, I didn’t know a lot about those modalities.

Ayurveda is a very rigid, prescriptive practice and  it just wasn’t speaking to me. It’s probably my genetic structure which causes me to rebel against the construct of professionalism. I have Irish, Scottish, Cornish, Dutch Jew, and Quaker heritage.  I am at the very core of myself, a village peasant.  The plants weren’t speaking to me, either.

More importantly my education had made me more aware of the moral gray area that we enter when appropriate the knowledge of other cultures. I decided that I just wanted to avoid the hassle.  Kenneth’s statements encouraged me to maintain the focus of  my anthropological studies on the healers and folkways of own heritage.

And I am on that.  I know my history. I know which translators are pretty solid and who was writing creative nonfiction. That’s part of being a responsible researcher.  I have facsimiles of Irish history books written in the 1600’s and every herbal published in the UK before 1600.  I am such a nerd that when I find a partially legible note scribbled in the front of a copy of Kuno Meyer’s Triads of Ireland about “Professor Binc….”  I know that whoever wrote the note was a student of Daniel Binchy’ s because Binchy used Meyer’s translations as texts.

For the purposes of brevity, this article will focus primarily on the Irish culture, but I contend anyone who has studied the folk healers of their own ancestry will recognize synchronicities as I did when I explored other branches of my heritage.

Scholars who study Irish history face several disadvantages.  The first problem is that the acidity of the soil in Ireland has yielded little in the way of organic remains.  The second is that being a people who were very fond of oral narrative, the Irish didn’t bother with writing much down.   When they finally took to writing, they did so with fervor. Irish scribes preserved the knowledge of ancient societies through the Dark Ages. Manuscripts such as the Rosa Anglica would have been lost to time were it not for these monks.[2]

Unfortunately, the failed attempt at ethnic cleansing of the Irish by the English included the destruction of the monasteries and churches where many of the early Gaelic manuscripts had been hidden.

Written documentation is sparse and generally pertains to professional healers.  There are two surviving Brehon Law tracts which pertained to medical practice: the Bretha Crólige (Judgments of Blood-lying)[3] and the Bretha Déin Cécht (Judgments of Dían Cécht)[4] which were written between the end of the 7th century and the beginning of the 9th, by Irish monastic communities.  The tracts confirm the existence of both male and female physicians known as liaig and ban-liaig, respectively.   They also established norms regarding the responsibility of caring for the injured and ill called folog nothrusa (maintenance of sickness).  Brehon law texts also refer to bags carried by physicians known as línchor.[5]

Commentaries known as glosses, were added to these documents during the 11th- to 12th century which implied that women physicians functioned mostly as midwives. They were undoubtedly added due to the increasingly patriarchal conservatism of the church as there is ample documentation of female healers practicing in the early modern era.  This is how the phrase “gloss things over” got its start.

One recension of the Irish mythological cycle, Lebor Gabála Érenn (Book of the Taking of Ireland)[6] was included as part of the Lebor Laignech (Book of Leinster) written in 1150 CE by another monastic community.  It includes a narrative called the Tain bo Cuailgne which mentions of a group of liaig said to accompany certain armies, wearing bags known as lés which carried the ointments that they would apply to injured soldiers at the end of the battle.

When researcher Audrey Meaney catalogued early burial sites in the UK, it was mostly women whose graves contained artifacts, the placement of which left the impression that they had originally been contained in some sort of bag.[7] This seems to back up folk narratives which assert that females were once responsible for healing in their communities. More to the point though it was many women who had these bags at various sites.

This was one of the first times that I saw (truthfully… it was an advisor who pointed it out to me) that what I thought was only a problem amongst creative nonfiction writers, was a very real problem in anthropological research.   In their quest for compelling discoveries, they read much into what in what was probably just an everyday practice.  It seems likely that moms just carried a first aid kit than a village had 27 shamans.

Setting that question aside until some remarkable new archaeological find sheds light on the issue, folklore specialists, such as Richard Jenkins, do agree that indigenous healing beliefs informed various “ritual specialists…from the early modern period to the twentieth century.”[8]  The study of these healers is mostly informed by written folklore and ethnographic compilation of oral narratives. Discovering more about these healers provides a glimpse of what their healing culture might look like.

Childbirth: Woodcut from Der Swangern Frawen und he bammen roszgarten, by Eucharius Rösslin, 1513.

Women gave birth with the help of midwives called cnáimhseach or bean ghlúine[9] (kneeling woman) who was responsible for knowing many methods of protecting the health of the newborn child. It was the bean ghlúine who would lay the iron bar across a cradle or bathe a newborn in saltwater to prevent abduction by the aes sídhe.

These women were also known for having tricks to be able to help relieve the pain of childbirth.  Some claimed to be able to do this by means of transferring the pain of childbirth to a man. A Munster midwife told Lady Gregory, “Did I know the pain could be put on a man?  Sure, I seen my own mother that was a midwife do it.”

Gregory goes on to tell a story of a man, whose wife was in labor, falling amongst his friends gathered outside the home, as if experiencing the pain of childbirth.  What stands out to me about this story is that the men had gathered together outside to support their friend as he waited for his child to be born.  That experience seemed to be the norm, leading one to believe that the birth of a child was a community affair.

The bean feasa (woman of knowing) was an intriguing character, and likely the ritual specialist in Irish society.  While most accounts mention females in this role, there is a male term, fear feasa, which may speak to the fact that the role was likely less gendered than feminist folklorists maintain. There was the “lucht pisreóg” and while many people translate that to enchanter, the literal translation is simply “community charmer”.   In Scotland, she was called the hen-wife or the cailleach-chearc.[10]

The idea that the bean feasa inhabited liminal spaces was probably first put forth in academic circles by folklorist Nancy Schmitz, who published a paper that ended with a brief comparison of the bean feasa and Native American shamans.[11] Folklorist Gearoid Ó Crualaoich depicts the bean feasa as “an oracular authority for her community regarding the meaning and significance of experiences they fail to understand.”[12]

Working within the framework of beliefs held by many ancient society that illness was caused by malevolent spirits and the like, it was she who was responsible for mediating between the human world and the Otherworld.  Sometimes she did this by use of charms and spells, sometimes by means of divination or prophecy.  While on occasion she would work with herbs or strange potions, she often was called upon when the cause of an illness or misfortune was mysterious in nature.

It is important to note that these healers were not considered witches in the sense of a human who had some sort of pact with the devil, though some of them had power struggles with local priests.   In fact, there is no Gaelic word for that sort of witch.  As Nancy Schmitz explains Irish people all had “access to supernatural power in the form of spells and charms and entrance to the fairy world (for good or evil), was available to anyone who wished to make use of it. No contract with a particular figure of evil was necessary.”[13] This seems to be supported by the fact that Irish Christian literature was still denigrating  fios sigheog (knowledge of fairies)” well into the late seventeenth century. [14]

Biddy Early is possibly the most widely lauded bean feasa in Ireland.  Immortalized by Irish folklorist Lady Augusta Gregory in her book, Visions and Beliefs in the West of Ireland, Biddy Early is notorious for consulting her infamous “black bottle” for her otherworldly knowledge.  It may say something about “scholars” that I have never once read it suggested that the bottle might contain an entheogen. 

In the years after the Gaelic language faded from common use, these healers were called fairy doctors –described here by Irish folklorist Lady Francesca Wilde:

“The fairy doctors are generally females. Old women, especially, are considered to have peculiar mystic and supernatural power. They cure chiefly by charms and incantations, transmitted by tradition through many generations.”[15]

There also seem to have been healers who dealt with the everyday illnesses and injuries in a village by means of herbs, charms and other remedies.  In Ireland, she was called the bean leighis (probably some sort of corruption of ban-liaig).  The more I study this the more I think that this term was used to describe older women who helped in the community after their children had grown and gone.

The bean leighis were responsible for passing along the use of cures to the younger members of the community, but it did not seem that their knowledge was exclusive and it could also be that the term was used to describe an action rather than a role.  As James Mangen told Lady Gregory, “my mother learned cures from an Ulster woman, for the Ulster women are the best for cures.”  It seems that many of the women of the peasantry had some passing knowledge of these practices leading Lady Gregory to state “An old woman without learning, it is she who will be doing charms.” [16]

The plants  were commonly used is supported by the folk narrative.  Lady Gregory mentions conversations with healers such as Bridget Ruane who assured her that “Dub-cosac (lichen) was “food for the heart, very good for a sore heart” and that “slanlus (plantain) and garblus (dandelion) were both used for curing wounds and bringing people back from the dead.[17]

Most women seemed to have a grasp on enough basic knowledge to care for their families and only turned to outside help when they were in over their head. Irish medical historian James Mooney concurs saying that “every housekeeper is well acquainted with all the virtues of the common herbs” and that she only turns for help when “she has exhausted her resources or is convinced that the illness is of supernatural origin.”[18]

In Irish society, the torramh (wake) was a community event which often lasted days and included plays, sharing of pipes, dancing, singing, and the ancient practice known as caoineadh, or keening. It is during the torramh that we meet another wise woman the bean chaointe (keening woman) who:

“Inhabited a liminal state between the living and the world of the dead for the duration of the mourning period, entering a kind of “divine madness” which allowed the keener to express the collective outpouring of grief through her voice and body, leading the community in a public expression of sorrow and lament.”[19]

These funeral rituals support the idea that the Gaels understood the importance of social affiliation in helping people rebound from trauma.[20]  This is a particularly powerful message for me as it is my firm belief that we do a dismal job of mourning these days, which leaves those who have suffered a loss in a state of lingering trauma.

This very brief description of the Gaelic healing culture speaks to their understanding that the wellness of the whole community is crucial to survival.  At every turn, you read community members stepping up to take part in the process.
That may be the one bit of commonality that I have found in all resilient communities- a strong sense of social cohesion which their healers were partially responsible for nurturing.  There is so much to be learned from those who have gone before us in the ways of self-care and community wellness.

[1] Proefrock, Kenneth. 2010. "Otzi and the Judgments of Dian Cecht." Aontacht. December. http://www.druidicdawn.com/aontacht/volume3.html.

[2] Wulff, Winifred. Rosa Anglica Sev Rosa Medicinæ Johannis Anglici: An Early Modern Irish Translation of a Section of the Mediaeval Medical Text-Book of John of Gaddesden. London, England: Simpkin Marshall LTD., 1923.

[3] Binchy, Daniel A. “Bretha Crólige.” Ériu 12 (1938): 1–77

[4] Binchy, D. A. “Bretha Déin Chécht.” Ériu 20 (1966): 1–66.

[5] Kelly, F. (2001). “Medicine and Early Irish Law.” Irish Journal of Medical Science, 73-77.

[6] Macalister, D., ed. Lebor Gabála Érenn : The Book of the Taking of Ireland. Translated by Stewart, R.A. 5 vols. Dublin, Ireland: Dublin: Published for the Irish texts Society by the Educational Company of Ireland, 1938.

[7] Pollington, Leechcraft, p 48.

[8] Jenkins, R. (2007). “The Transformations of Biddy Early: From Local Reports of Magical Healing to Globalised New Age Fantasies.” Folklore, 162-182.

[9] Shaw, William. A Galic and English Dictionary: Containing All the Words in the Scotch and Irish Dialects of the Celtic, ... Vol. 1–2. W. and A. Strahan, 1780.  Regional distribution.

[10] Beith, M. (2004). Healing Threads: Traditional Healing of the Highlands and the Islands. Edinburgh: Berlinn Limited.

[11] Schmitz, N. (1977). “An Irish Wise Woman.” Journal of the Folklore Institute, 169-179.

[12] Ó Crualaoich, G. (2003). The Book of the Cailleach. Dublin: Cork University Press.

[13] Nancy Schmitz, “Irish Wise Woman,” 173.

[14] Timothy C. Correll, "Believers, Sceptics and Charlatans: Evidential Rhetoric, the Fairies and Fairy

Healers in Irish Oral Narrative and Belief," Folklore 116, 2. 

[15] Wilde, L. F. (1887). Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland Volume II. Boston: Tinker and Co. Retrieved from Sacred Texts: http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/celt/ali/ali152.htm

[16]  Gregory, L. (1920). Visions and Beliefs in the West of Ireland. London: G.P. Putnam's Sons.

[17] Gregory, L. Visions and Beliefs

[18] Mooney, James. The Medical Mythology of Ireland. Philadelphia, PA: MacCalla & Company, 1887. p. 138.

[19] McCoy, N. P. (2009). “Madwoman, Banshee, Shaman: Gender, Changing Performance Contexts and the Irish Wake Ritual.” In B. B. E. Mackinlay, Musical Islands: Exploring Connections Between Music, Place and Research (pp. 207-220). Newcastle UK: Cambridge Scholars Press.

[20] Donnelly, S. (1999). “Folklore associated with dying in the west of Ireland.” Palliative Medicine, 57-62.

The Practical Side of Tradition

Some years ago I wrote a brief post on  Imbolg or  Lá Fhéile Bríde to explain my observance of  the  holiday.  That was in the days before I went back to school and figured out that the lesson I was missing from the folklore wasn’t the spirituality. What I wasn’t seeing was how traditional common sense could help me organize my life.

In the same way that folk tales usually offered up some small bit of operant information, despite their moralizing, folk customs (festivals and holidays) usually served some community building function. These customs and rituals also served the equally important role of keeping the agricultural and household tasks on schedule.

The great part about living now, is that we can look through the folklore for the useful stuff and go on with our bad selves without being bogged down by any of the dogma. I generally think people are looking too hard for it, anyway. Peasants didn’t have much time for philosophy and neither do I.  I will leave the deep philosophical dissection to people with more time on their hands.  I have work to do.

Besides, despite what some creative nonfiction writers out there would have you think, we really don’t know much about the esoteric meaning behind the ancient observance of this holiday.

It seems likely that the celebration of these agricultural holidays pre-date Celtic settlement of the country and are remnants of an indigenous cultural practice.[1]  So the Gaels likely assimilated some practices from an earlier culture and the Christians assimilated some from the Gaels.  It is the way of things.

Imbolg was a quarter day.  A day that marked the half way point between the beginning of gam or gaimred and the beginning of sam or samrad. Folk tradition in Ireland holds that February 1st is the first day of “spring” but they did not divide their year into four seasons.  There was the cold half of the year (gaimred) associated with the feminine and the warm half of the year (samrad) associated with the masculine.

There was even a quite practical reason for that.  On Beltaine, the beginning of samrad, the women left the settlement to go tend the herds in the summer pastures, but the men stayed put to work the fields.  That’s also why Beltaine was when temporary marriages ended.

While it is true that we can glean some knowledge of ancient practices, many of the following customs were practiced by Christians who celebrated the day as Lá Fhéile Bríde.  There is no doubt of that.  Truly, my issues with organized religion aside, I have no grievances with St. Bríde.  Any gal who can instantly turn water into ale and then heal the headache of a hangover is solid in my book

Oíche Fhéile Bríde agus Lá Lúnasa was an important feast day for the Gaels.   Bríde herself promised that the weather would improve from this day forward saying:

Gach re lágo maith
Ó’m Iá-sa amach
Agus leath mo lacjeinigh

‘Every second day fine
from my day onwards
and half of my own day’.[2]

The farmers would also watch to see if the hedgehog came out of hibernation on this day. This meant farmers could start preparing their fields to be sown. Villagers could expect that soon the rough seas of winter would begin to abate and a great tide would wash in loads of seaweed to be gathered, cut and spread on their cropland.

In other areas, this wasn’t a certainty and the coming of spring was divined by the portents of the day. A rhyme from the North of Scotland from the 1800’s went:

If Candlemas day be clear and fair,
 half o’ winter is t’ gang and mair;
If Candlemas day be dark and foul,
The half o’ the winter is deen at Yule.”

In other parts of Scotland they watched to see if the hibernating adders left their dens. It was considered bad luck to harm an adder on this day and as they were kind of cold still at this point they weren’t moving very quickly.  They didn’t pose much of a threat. There were several little rhymes written to remind people of this.

La Feill na Bride,
Thig nighean Imhir as a chnoc,
Cha bhean mise do nighean
’S cha dean i mo lochd.’ [Imhir,

The Feast Day of the Bride,
The daughter of Ivor shall come from the knoll,
I will not touch the daughter of Ivor,
Nor shall she harm me.

For both the farmer and the homemaker, it was a time for taking stock of what you had on hand to be sure you had enough to last you until the land provided you with fresh food to harvest.  It was a time for cleaning the home and getting it ready for Bride’s visit as well as making báirín breac and butter as the sheep who were giving birth began producing milk again.

Just as a side note,  I know this this sounds all lovely as if they were living in tune with nature and all of that. In truthy, it was just  good old-fashioned animal husbandry in pastoral communities.  One of the tasks assigned to women in charge of the flocks at Lughnasadh was to wean lambs from their ewes with the express intent of creating a fresh milk supply in February.

(If you are confused as to which holiday this báirín breac. was associated with, the answer is quite likely all of them as serving some sort of company loaf seems to closely mirror the Scottish custom of serving a bannock Marion McNeill called Highland Quarter Cake on the festivals. [3])

In some areas, the sprig of mistletoe, or holly, that had been hung at Yuletide to protect the house from fire and lightening, came down and St. Bridget’s crosses were made to hang in their stead.

(Despite what you have heard, these crosses took many forms and did not all resemble swastikas.  The easiest to make is the three-arm version popular in Co. Donegal, pictured above.)

Sometimes a household would use the materials leftover from making the crosses to make a small bed for the saint in the home.  Sometimes the family would use the leftover straw or rushes to light rush lights in honor of the saint.  Customs varied greatly by region.

There are many Irish healing superstitions associated with the holiday which do likely reach back to the days when Brighid presided over medicine and healers, but we don’t know for certain. While we can’t be quite sure of the origin of these customs, they do have the practical effect of insuring the healing supplies are ready for the year.

The Ribín Bríde was a piece of silk ribbon or a strip of linen that was left outdoors on St. Bridget’s Eve- usually on the windowsill or in a door way.  The saint was said to have blessed the ribbon as she passed by in her travels and it was used as a headache cure subsequently.  The Brat Bríde (Bridget’s Mantle) was a linen garment left out and used similarly throughout the year-especially by women to cure barrenness and to ensure safe childbirth.

The Crios Bríde (St. Bridget’s Belt) was a large ring of straw rope that people would walk through on St. Bridget’s Day to invoke the Saint’s protection from illness.  This custom seemed to be most common in Co. Galway.

Dividing the year by the cross quarters was not unique to Gaelic cultures.  Into late 18th century, the year English divided their years into quarters named for these holidays… Candlemas quarter…midsummer quarter…michaelmas quarter and Christmas quarter.[4]

Candlemas or as the Welsh call it Gŵyl Fair y Canhwyllau  (Mary’s Festival of the Candles) is also an ancient holiday.  Traditionally celebrated on February 2nd is mentioned often as a benchmark date in the Anglo Saxon Chronicles.  The first entry is in 1014 CE.[5]

It was also celebrated in Norway, Sweden and North of Germany. In Germany, it was said that “If the sun shines on Candlemas day, the flax will prosper.” there is some story about Jesus and Mary associated with the feast, the practical aspect of this holiday is that this was the day people would bring their candles to the church to be blessed by the priest.  Which you know, meant they had to be made in time.

It’s also worth noting that Candlemas did not usurp Lá Fhéile Bríde. In Ireland and Scotland, they celebrated both festivals and there is some convoluted story as to Bríde’s association with Mary to account for the proximity of the festivals.

Up until the reign of the Stuarts, Candlemas, rather than Twelfth Night, was the day that all the holiday greenery was to be removed from the home.  In some areas, the holly and ivy were burned in Candlemas Eve fires.  Sound familiar?

This poem, written by Robert Herrick in 1601, documents the long-held superstition that all such greenery should be removed from the home on the eve of Candlemas unless you want to be plagued by goblins.

Ceremony Upon Candlemas Eve
DOWN with the rosemary, and so
Down with the bays and misletoe;
Down with the holly, ivy, all,
Wherewith ye dress’d the Christmas Hall:
That so the superstitious find
No one least branch there left behind:
For look, how many leaves there be
Neglected, there (maids, trust to me)
So many goblins you shall see.[6]

Though we can never really know after years of adhering to the custom, I have concluded it seems at least possible that this practice was based on some common sense. The greenery is a fire hazard by this point of the year.  I am cleaning up old dry needles from all sorts of strange places today.  They work really well in tinder boxes.

So, while everyone else is waxing poetic about deeper esoteric underpinnings of the festivals, my actions are informed by traditional folk practicality.

These couple of days are about taking stock of my situation including making an inventory of the gardening closet, freezer, pantry and apothecary.

I will then  spend the next month restocking things that I won’t have time for making once gardening starts like candles, soap and fire starters.

I am literally clearing out the old to make way for the new with tasks like making sure the jars are cleaned out and ready for the next go around.

I am anticipating the return of good weather and beginning to get my seeds around to start transplants.  That’s probably why I have stuff in the ground in early March and am eating fresh lettuce before most people have their garden planted.

Those are just a few of  the ways traditions have helped me move through the year.  Soon I will be offering a much more comprehensive look at how traditions help me move through the year.

[1]  Kevin Danaher, “Irish Folk Tradition and the Celtic Calendar.” In The Celtic Consciousness, ed. Robert O’Driscoll, (New York: George Braziller Inc., 1983), 223.
[2] O’Sullivan, John C. “St Brigid’s Crosses.” Folk Life 11, no. 1 (January 1973): 60–81..
[3] McNeill, Florence Marian. The Scots Kitchen: Its Traditions and Lore, with Old-Time Recipes. 1974 Reprint. Glasgow, Scotland: Blackie & Son, 1929.
[4] Glasse, Hannah. The Art of Cookery, Made Plain and Easy: Which Far Exceeds Any Thing of the Kind Yet Published … London, England: W. Strahan, J. and F. Rivington, J. Hinton, 1774.
[5] Ingram, James, trans. The Anglo Saxon Chronicle. London, England: J.M. Dent, 1823.
[6] Herrick, Robert. Works of Robert Herrick. vol II. Alfred Pollard, ed. London, Lawrence & Bullen, 1891. 129.

The Obligatory Beginning of the Year Post

So the holidays have passed.  They were lovely, thanks.

I had some much-needed downtime to enjoy spending time with my clan. More importantly, I was able to really focus getting back on my regimen, my needs and how they will shape my upcoming year.  This isn’t really a resolutions post so much as it is I’ve sorted out my plans for the year and want to write about it.

I have a few loose ends to tie up on the work front.  Some odd things happen last year.  I wasn’t sure what to do,  so I did a whole lot of nothing while thinking about things.

I know a lot of people talk about phlegmatics being able to change course fluidly when they encounter an obstacle.   I tend to experience it as being split into trickles of indecision moving less powerfully, until coming to rest in a deep dark pool.  But I would guess that neurodiversity plays into that.

So I did a whole lot of nothing, while waiting to gather my thoughts again.  It was refreshing. Eventually the pool overflows and thoughts gain momentum. Water can’t sit still for long, without getting brackish.

Rebecca something the other day along the lines of not being able to move when undecided and it was like she was speaking directly to that deep, still pool at my core.  (By the way, have you checked out her new website? ) Anyway, that spurred me into making some decisions.

I took the first several days of the new year to get my website transferred and updated.   This was not a small task, I do all the work myself, with Adobe Muse.  I am pretty excited to be able to cross it off my “to do” list. Hopefully, this will be the end of my communication woes.

I suppose the biggest change over there is that I am really mixing  up the way I work with clients.  You can read more about it there if you are so inclined. I am trying to free time up for other work-related projects that I prefer to focus on this year, and more travel.  I really want to start “doing” more and sitting at a computer less.

I will try not to neglect the blog.  I have new posts for the ethnomedicine/bean feasa series and a lot of herbal history articles to pepper the blog with.  People seemed to like those, despite being long and heavily references. Other projects I have going that I might explore here on the blog include:

Growing Community
growing community Iowa City Urban Homesteaders I think a lot of you know that I believe helping people make meaningful connections is part of my work. I was considering titling this project “cat herding” because that is what trying to get people together in real life feels like around here, sometimes.  I have  intentions to attempt to re-build a sort of defunct community organization, but I have set boundaries for myself that if no one steps up to help, I am not going to burn myself out on the project.  I need a slytherin friend to remind me of that later in the year.

Homesteading Projects
We have all sorts of new things brewing here, literally.  I got my husband big boy beer brewing equipment for the holidays. We just started our first couple of gallons of mead brewing over the weekend and will start our first five-gallon batch of beer, soon. I got a dress form so I can get back to making my own clothing, properly. A corner of the classroom is slowly morphing into a sewing nook. I have this daydream that I might go back and turn some of the old recipes into proper tutorials but I doubt that it will happen this year.

Gardening Projects
Faoi is in sad need of some tender loving care this year.  My raised beds are falling apart and we have to build a new trellis for our hops vine and do some repairs to the grape trellis.  I also made a lot of bare space last year for planting and am still waiting for another load of mulch from the utility company. I am crossing my fingers that I will find someone who wants to do some work-trade to pay for a class, so put the word out there for me.

Self Care and Activism: What I Learned The Hard Way

selfcareOkay, so the election happen. Suddenly I have clients coming out of the woodwork needing help at a time when I am not doing so well myself.  While I would like to blame that on post-election anxiety, that is not my problem.

Some of my close friends know that that I am not exactly neurotypical. Even when things are flowing smoothly, daily life taxes me.  I also have genetic chronic health issues. I know how to handle it, but it is super frustrating to have to work twice as hard to accomplish anything- including sticking to a regimen.

It has its upside though, I believe that my own struggles make me especially good at helping my clients adopt strategies.   If I can do it, anyone can.  Unfortunately that doesn’t mean I don’t stumble.  Everyone stumbles…

One of my problems is that I am by nature one of those people who needs to do something about the problems I see in the world.  I tend to jump into activism and helping others, often at the expense of my own wellness.  I know that a lot of my friends are the same.

As we move into days when more of us are going to take up the role of activist,  I want to share a story with you.  There are a lot of articles that talk about this on a “how to” level times, but I want to talk about “why?” So here it is — a very personal story that hopefully serves to establish why self-care is a necessity.

My husband and I threw ourselves into the Occupy movement with a fervor. I had some basic teach-ins on avoiding hypothermia and warding off illness in tight quarters, but none of the occupiers really embraced  the importance of self-care to the sustainability of the movement.

We learned that lesson the hard way.  We lived through tragedy and dealt with disappointments by burning out or turning to shitty coping mechanisms and bad decision making. Recovering from that took awhile for both my husband and I— and a shit ton of  therapy.

Unfortunately, life doesn’t always let up to give you time to heal.  The last couple of years has been tough on my family.  It seems like just when we got through one crisis, another one popped up. I  was so busy taking care of everyone else, taking care of me slipped through the cracks.

The smallest thing can be your undoing.  For me,  it was a broken tooth and a round of antibiotics that threw me off  my game so far that symptoms started cropping up. I fell behind on work because sitting in a chair for too long hurts. Everything I write  sounds like crap because my brain is foggy due to lack of sleep and constant pain.  RIght now, I am so overwhelmed, fighting with the Internet company to come out and fix my broken e-mail seems like it is just too much to handle.

All of this is just a very long way of saying, it is easier to stay healthy than it is to get well.

When you work as a clinician, it can be a weird emotional dynamic to admit that in this moment; your illness has the best of you. It is embarrassing.  It seems like a shortcoming, or possibly even a marketing liability which is ridiculous.   I found myself worrying that someone would let me go from an assignment if they found out I was struggling.  So, I chose to keep quiet about it until now.

But pretending to be okay when you aren’t, isn’t setting a very good example.

I will get back on track. I’ve managed my physical condition for most of my adult life with little input from physicians or other herbal clinicians.   Before this fall, the last time I had to work briefly with physicians was after a trip to the ER in 2012.   I am focusing on me now and I’ve got this.  But like any protocol, I won’t be better overnight.

And this time I vow to do that without feeling guilty about putting myself first.   It isn’t a luxury, it is a necessity. It can be the difference between being able to participate in creating the change that needs to happen, or not.  I found the quote above and I plan on living it.

I am thinking lot about how I can better guide my clients towards healthy outcomes, too.  We need new approaches that are inexpensive and accessible–especially as it seems least possible that the country will be taking giant steps backward in regards to healthcare access.

Don’t worry I don’t want to talk about politics…yet.

I want to use my story as an example.  I want to urge my clinician friends to really engage in radical self-care, right now.

Our  communities are going to need us to be at our best.  Remember that your first responsibility in the hard days that may follow is to care for yourself.

It is also important to encourage others to care for themselves.  Reach out to those  clients you think might be in danger of burning out. Insist that your apprentices and students make time for themselves. At Goddard we were required to show that we were engaging in self-care in order to get our degree.

Be wary of groups who don’t encourage their members to take breaks and make themselves and their family a priority.  Know that there are activist groups out there whose leadership will burn through  their volunteers’ spirits and leave them quite literally for dead.

I guess what I am saying is look out for one another, please.  I love you all.