I recently came down with a cold, which I’m currently fighting off (I have a hot lemon tea next to me as I write this, on the sofa, under a blanket…you get the idea). This has led to a period of what I think of as “enforced rest”, where all you can do is sit or lie down, nap, occasionally read, and not a lot else.
While a seasonal cold is a typical occurrence, the likelihood of being seriously affected by it closely depends on your overall state of health to begin with, which itself is linked to nutrition, exercise, sleep, stress and a whole host of other factors.
The truth of it is, quite simply, I have not been in the best of health, physical or mental, for much of this year. I’ve suffered some serious episodes of depression, and the related symptoms of stress, insomnia and general ennui that comes along with it. So, I’ve not been eating well, not been exercising enough, and been masking the tiredness with caffeine and/or beer; all the while trying to both keep productive at my 9-5 job and go to concerts, movies, etc. in my free time – oh, and try to be politically active, and to do my Year 2 Druid College studies too.
“My candle burns at both ends; It will not last the night; But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends— It gives a lovely light!” – Edna St.Vincent Millay
All of which equals burnout, which means that even a simple cold can hit like a ton of bricks. As a Druid-y type, I like to try to read the signs of nature, to learn what lessons I can from the world around me. So, as part of nature myself, what lessons can I glean from this event?
The obvious answer is to pay more attention to my health, physical and mental (and dare I say spiritual too?), and not just when I feel sick, but all the time.
The inimitable Nimue Brown has a post called Druidry With a Body, where she writes:
“In theory, if I honour nature then I should honour nature as it manifests in my own body.”
As Druids, as Pagans, we don’t hold to a philosophy that denigrates the body. It is not merely a vessel for our spirit, nor is it some sinful burden that we must discipline and purify (I still recall the old Catholic catechism that taught us as children to “mortify the flesh” to avoid sin, and I shudder at its cruelty). It isn’t something to escape from, but something to live with – to live as.
I don’t have a body, I am a body. An embodied being, not placed on the earth by some god or other, but grown from the earth, like all life here.
And yet, in practice, it is so hard to listen to your body; to eat what and when your body needs to, to rest when your body needs to, to move as your body needs to. So much of this is disconnected from our daily life in the unnatural state of “civilisation”, where junk food is cheap and readily available, where work demands you to do a set number of hours each day with no regard for the cycles of the seasons, of light and dark, of energy and respite, where signs of tiredness, illness and stress can be masked by caffeine and alcohol, or else worn as a badge of honour to show the world how “hard-working” you are, as if that was the measure of a human life.
Then there’s the insecurities fostered by this same society, which holds up a particular type of body as the “ideal” and shames those (majority) of us who do not look like that. And, of course, there’s my still-being-worked-out tension with gender and how that relates to both my body and my mind.
But underneath all of this, we are, all of us, animals. And like any animal, our basic needs are the same: nutrition, rest, shelter, safety, companionship. Druidry tells us that these animal needs are sacred – rooted as they are in the earth, and the wild wisdom of nature. As Nimue puts it:
“I live in my body and with my body. In recent years I’ve tended not to think of it as something separate from ‘me’. It is not something I have to control and punish. I realise how much of the controlling urge comes from a culture that sees animal as lesser than human, and anything animal manifesting in the human as shameful.”
And so, I’m taking the time to rest. To listen to my body and recover. Then, I intend to carry this lesson on through the pattern of the days. To eat well, but not obsess over calories, to exercise but not as punishment, to work hard at work, but allow myself to switch off at home, to practice my Druid path not as a chore, but as a joy.
In short, to live, rather than to simply exist.
“You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
Love what it loves.” – Mary Oliver, “Wild Geese”