Lost in the Glass Castle – The Rule of the Web in the Year of Coronavirus

It’s the last day of March. It has been a week since the lockdown to contain coronavirus began in the UK. I wake at 4am, as has become my habit, and lie awake with my mind running through all the things I need to do and all the worries that it is useless to worry about and then I beat myself up for worrying about them. By 5.30am I’ve had enough and decide to get up and do something useful.

Breakfast, my morning prayers to my gods and the spirits of place, my daily too often failed attempt to sit and breathe and listen. Then I fire up my laptop, open Firefox, and click on the link to gmail. ‘This webpage is unavailable’. Agh. How the hell am I going to send my patron newsletters? Now my conservation internship has been cancelled until who knows when I have no route into paid work and my Patreon account is my only source of income. My heart’s racing and I can’t breathe as I check the modem (green lights on) and my network connection (fine) then turn the machine on and off.

Thankfully it starts working. I can breathe again. And now I’m looking back at my reaction. What the fuck? How, in the space of a few days, have I gone from being happy in a role that involves making positive changes out in nature alongside likeminded people – building a hibernaculum for newts, planting wildflowers, installing an outdoor classroom – to being completely dependent on something as ineffable and fallible as the internet not only for money but for a place in society?

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Over the past few days I have been reflecting on how much of my identity and reason for being have become bound up with this blog, which provides a platform for my voice as an awenydd in service to Gwyn and the gods and spirits of my landscape and my online communities, as well as for book sales.

Its small successes have partly been down to my use of social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. Over the past few years the former, in particular, has had a massively detrimental effect on my mental health. For me it’s the virtual equivalent of walking into a large, noisy crowd in a magical castle that has no walls but the multiplicity of glass screens that grant us access and contain us.

Attempting to find friends and acquaintances at some illusory fairy feast where the food looks its tastiest but cannot be touched and interacting only with their reflections in their best party gear. Like the speechless dead their mouths do not move and their facial expressions do not change one bit.

Yet words appear on the page and conversations take place, stuttering, dragging on for days, as people blink in and out of existence, moving between the worlds, like ghosts. Being able to flit in and out of the crowd, of groups, creates a perennial nosiness. It takes up an incredible amount of headspace trying to keep up, to find the right answers, to argue against points of disagreement, to read responses in the absence of real faces. When I get offline a part of me remains in the glass castle, a shadow of myself arguing with shades of my own imagining, exhausted, distracted, lost.

I recognise this. But it’s only when coronavirus hits and so many people are forced online for work and to communicate due to the social distancing rules I realise just how powerful the internet has become. To the point we can neither earn a living nor live without it. The web has made it possible for us to work and meet without travelling (which is also greener) and set up groups for mutual support. I admit these are very good things yet something within me is screaming a warning about the surrender of our power to the invisible rulers of the halls of the internet on their glass thrones.

I make the decision to leave Facebook. It’s hard. I know the costs. I will lose contact with people, I will miss events, I will be giving up opportunities for publicity. Less people will see my blog posts and buy my books. These are the teeth, like a monster of Annwn, it has sunk into me. These are the tendrils of dependency that the beast beneath the glass castle has coiled around me, extending from my virtual being to my well being in Thisworld. It hurts when I pull them off, although there is no blood.

I return to Peneverdant, to the green hill in this virtual space between Thisworld and Annwn. I look back at the times I’ve been lost in the ether of pointless arguments and at the good it’s done. Through it I’ve helped real people connect with real lands and real gods and put real books in their hands. But at the cost of the loss of a piece myself, the surrender of part of my identity, to the glass castle.

Looking forward, to the promised ‘when this is all over’, I realise, if I survive, I no longer want to be ruled by the web. I want to walk again amongst the people of Thisworld and Annwn. To put down firmer roots in my land and my community – I determine that I will carry on volunteering for the Wildlife Trust whether it leads to paid work or not and put my name on the waiting list for an allotment. I will continue my service of blogging here but I will not let it rule or define me.

I whistle to that lost piece of my soul and pray to my god, Gwyn ap Nudd, to guide it back to his glass castle in Annwn where our souls are reunited and the dance of the dead reconciles illusion and truth.

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Only once this process is complete do I feel ready to face the scary now this piece self-indulgently avoids. The escalating infections, the escalating deaths, of course relayed in figures and graphs by the internet. The rising numbers worldwide, across the UK, here in Lancashire. I see people are infected in Liverpool, Salford, Bolton, Wigan, Chorley, Blackpool, dying in the Royal Lancaster Infirmary.

That soon it will be here in South Ribble and Preston. That people will be fighting for their lives and dying in the Royal Preston Hospital, where the day centre has been allocated to coronavirus patients. I fear for my elderly parents, friends who are old or have health problems, know I’m not immune.

I’m asked to provide a pagan perspective on faith requirements in relation to excess deaths as a result of COVID-19 for the Lancashire Resilience Forum (Lancashire County Council’s emergency planning service). A small useful thing I can do. I revive my Microsoft laptop to attend a Skype meeting.

Right now there is no avoiding using the halls of the internet’s glass castle to bring about physical changes. All over the world fellowships are founded with people we may or may not see on the otherside. I walk these spaces more mindfully, my eyes on the goal, not allowing myself to get lost. I pray that one day some of us will meet on the green hills of Thisworld and, if not, on the hills of Annwn.