Today I hiked along the north Wales hills. This photograph (thanks Andy) has made me smile because it reminds me of how far I’ve come. Around 13 years ago the world changed quite dramatically and I felt as if I were going quite mad while at the same time discovering both myself and a deep and profound connection with nature. I had a compulsion to walk these hills as I tried to understand the new ways in which I was experiencing the world. Over and over, day after day I would walk, connecting my mind and bare soles of feet to the earth. I didn’t tell anybody at the time what was happening because I felt that talking (or writing in a too obvious way) about it all would be bringing these thoughts into ‘reality’ and I wasn’t ready to do that. And so it continued while I focussed on family, on getting my degree; on working in the community. I thought that if I could better support and understand other people, I could better understand and support myself. In 2013 I finally felt more able to write about the previous years and wrote a blog called Hanes. This was then published in Earthlines magazine in 2014. Today, hiking up these same hills I am no longer worried by the connections I feel or the way my mind can translate these into voices – I accept that we are all different, that is ok that I think differently, and that a very narrow definition of ‘normal’ is not something I want to try to squeeze myself into anymore.
Here’s the original piece, Hanes pt2, maybe I’d write it differently now, but I wanted to share it as it was written at the time. Hanes pt1 is a poem, I’ve added a recording at the end.
Hanes [Cymraeg]: history, story; secret.*
Ten years is life-changing. One decade. One year, then another, piled on top of each other, a history, my cairn. Ten years ago could be yesterday. Ten years ago I said this is not who I am.
An undeniable statement. A new course set. A question: If this is not who I am, then who am I?
Where to start? I quit my job, sold my house, signed up for university, quit smoking. University changed my life. I tumbled heart-first into the Romantic idealism of Shelley, Blake and Whitman, embraced the stoic absurdism of Sartre, Nietzsche and Camus. My world became huge, an infinite spinning web of possibility. I read somewhere that books are time travel, clawing aside time and space the author reaches out to communicate across oceans. I felt like the first person to ever read or understand the words of these great writers.
Imagine that statement, this is not who I am, a stone dropped into the lake of consciousness, a weight great enough to generate deep, far-reaching waves, impossible to know, or control. A confirmed sceptic will struggle when the world explodes into life. Believe me, I know. I still think it unwise to accept everything heard or seen. Question everything.
I hear the trees’ voices, the mountains’ thoughts. People are no longer three-dimensional objects – they are multi-layered meaning and image. Everything has changed.
First thoughts on this? I am completely nuts. Seek Immediate Psychiatric Help. I nearly did. Stop. Question. Think. How is this process changing me? I see the world, people, myself, differently. I am becoming a better person. A better mother, partner, friend and writer, more involved with the local community. Empathy and emotional intelligence are increasing; ingrained anger and judgmental behaviour patterns are fading (slowly). I want to drink less, write more. This is madness?
True change needs time. I am minded of Rumi:
constant, slow movement teaches us to keep working
like a small creek that stays clear,
that doesn’t stagnate, but finds a way
through numerous details deliberately
For years I sought a shaman, a teacher. I needed a mentor to illuminate this dark mind, help clear the path. No one fit until one night in a dream I found her, my tutor, my shaman. I asked this old woman to teach me. She agreed – with certain conditions.
Stop. Think. Question. I cannot blindly follow instructions. Why? We are all different. My path is not your path.
I found my shaman and what she taught me was this: Think For Yourself. This is my life; my mind to illuminate; my path to clear. What I want to learn cannot be taught.
That was a tough lesson. I’ve since discovered my teacher has always been here, and she is a strict mistress. She is The Arts. More specifically – Poetry. Improving the work is a constant quest. I must write better, smarter, more simply. This is the endless pursuit of creation. Diving into self, seeking out the new, bringing to the surface ideas already presented to the world in a more eloquent fashion by history’s great writers (nothing is new). I read, write, perform, teach. Read, write, perform, teach. I go to workshops, meet other writers. Some I share an immediate connection with. Some infuriate me. I’m sure the feeling’s mutual. We walk our own paths. I respect anybody doing that. I learn from it. I create.
Tick-tock. Time moves nowhere. We move on. Change calls. Now, after ten years, the real work begins.
That night, a fire dragon engulfs dreams. Slamming the door shut, I press hands hard against flame-fingers streaming through cracks. He is relentless. Burning, burning. I am razed to the ground.
He wakes with me the next morning. Where? Look over your shoulder. Do it now. See what is behind you. A sofa? A bookcase? Some prints on the wall? Now look forward. Think, what is behind you? Is it all still there? This space between knowing and knowing is where the fire dragon lives.
We hurtle towards the Blonde Mountains. Hedgerows whisper she is here. I shiver. Tell no one. This is not real. Repeat. This is not real. A different culture, another age, I would know what this means. I do not know what any of this means.
I ignore him; this familiar form that has manifest time and again in films, for Chinese New Year, on restaurant menus. (Later I recall I was born in the Chinese year of the dragon and that my element is fire.) I have never been to the Far East. I have a tattoo of flames across my belly. Logical conclusion: an unknown recess of my mind is creating this…
…psychotic episode? Is that what this is? I imagine I tick enough boxes. Hallucination, delusion, mental confusion – check.
Apply logic. Breathe. Think. It will be okay. I will figure this out. I am not crazy. We arrive at Mézières-sur-Issoir. It is warm. Cherry trees blossom. Delicate, blush-pink flowers crowd azure skies like birdsong. He snorts. I walk. He ripples. I play table tennis. He watches; gives an occasional, derisive flick of the tail. Who are you? No reply. I eat ice cream.
Two days pass in deadlock. He will not explain. I do not acknowledge. I examine him when I think he’s not aware. A ridiculous strategy. He is strength, a heat-haze at the back of the mind, stunning, kaleidoscopic forms and myriad sun-colours. What is this?
Finally, it dawns on me. Idioms are beautiful. Pure poetry. It dawns on me. Understanding rises from within like the morning sun, illuminating, and I know. He is a she. She is me.
How did I forget myself? What is this world to create such insanity? The Cymraeg have a word: gwallgof. It means: insane, mad. Gwall: defect or mistake. Cof: memory. Gwallgof: defective memory. It is time for the memory to heal. I feel strong. Sure. Grounded. She found me. I find me.
Over the coming nights the spirits of the forests visit dreams. Voles, rabbits, hogs, buzzards, a majestic stag – noble, glorious, awe-inspiring. The trees call. I avoid them all. I am fire. I create dust.
The nights are vivid, the days blur. I am raw skin after severe sunburn, aware of everything. We walk along the water’s edge at Lac de Saint-Pardoux. Is this magic? A cliché? Our children laugh, we play football. Shelley speaks:
Life and the world, or whatever we call that which we are and feel,
is an astonishing thing. The mist of familiarity obscures from us the
wonder of our being.
It is the final night. The Blonde Mountain comes. I know him, have waited aeons for this. The world expands. He offers understanding, all existence, everything, anything. Whatever I dream he can create.
What does all knowledge look like? I cannot imagine. The universe spins out infinitely. What do I want? Nothing. Nothing I don’t already have or am working towards. The mountain’s prize gifts become distant, a monochrome film playing in the next room. Promises are ash on the wind.
The next day I wake feeling that some kind of test has been passed. I don’t know what. I think it wise to tell nobody. A diagnosis from a stranger who has not experienced this first-hand does not interest me. I’ll figure this out for myself. One fissure heals, another is created.
There is a tension. I admit my part. I’ve taken recreational drugs. Experienced interesting psychological events when not taking drugs. Are the two inextricably linked? The evidence I find online is conflicting. Does this admission demote me to the role of unreliable narrator? I fear I have lost the self-appointed expert witness title I had hoped to retain. This voice is small, fragile. The great sledgehammer of Research & Fact shatters attempts at understanding. Huddled away from logic’s dank walls the fire-dragon ekes out fragments of possible truths:
Psychosis (also called a psychotic experience or episode) is when you
perceive or interpret events differently from people around you.
This could include experiencing hallucinations, delusions or flight of ideas.
– MIND mental health website.
This shard, this glass splinter aches to worry into thoughts. I toss it onto the expanding scrapheap, turn to the lagoon of Edgar Allan Poe’s words, and dive:
They who dream by day are cognizant of many things
which escape those who dream only by night. In their grey visions
they obtain glimpses of eternity, and thrill, in awakening,
to find that they have been upon the verge of the great secret.
Perhaps Poe was mental too. I don’t imagine he bothered with self-help books, therapy or prescription drugs either (at least not in the sense I mean here). He did write numerous celebrated short stories of great psychological insight before dying at the age of forty wandering the streets of Baltimore delirious, in great distress and not in his own clothes. It’s thought alcoholism did for him. Damn you, you unreliable, brilliant, crazy, genius of a man.
Poe’s words are cold water. A mountain lake. I sink. Arms and face stretch upward. Bright-light-needles puncture blackening veneer. Self-doubt mushrooms from lungs, races upwards air-like to explode the surface. I am weight within weight. Words within words. Poe murmurs of exploration, voyage, adventure: Agressi sunt mare tenebrarum, quid in eo esset exploraturi: they ventured out against the sea of darkness to see what they would find. I descend. Need no air. Lost – ar goll yn y dŵr. The fire splutters. I write:
… I know my feet exist so that I might stand firmly on the ground…
I chase the air. Drag heavy limbs ashore. Lie prostrate on an earth spinning at 67,000 miles per hour around a star. I cannot feel it. None of this matters. A beautiful Cymraeg idiom forms: iar fach yr haf, it means little hen of summer, or butterfly. She is cabbage white. Common. I pinch tracing-paper-wings softly with damp fingers. I could crush her. She twitches. Strong muscles in the thorax fight to move wings up and down in a figure of eight pattern too quick for me to map.
Should I pin her down? Frame her with wooded words? Seal the cadaver in glass? Do not touch. Watch. Write. Read. Write the names out again, maybe in Latin: Aglais urticae, Inachis io, Pieris rapae. Repeat. Study. Learn.
I let go.
I return to the hills of Y Gogs. They sound different now. The man-who-is-a-bird watches. He thinks himself a young hawk, lone, perceptive. I know him a gossipy old man, a murmuration of starlings. I am a filing cabinet, squat, cornered, emotionless. He claws open drawers as if they are bin-liners. Black razor beaks scavenge through white pages; marble eyes scan thoughts. He hunts for knowledge I do not contain.
The woman-who-is-a-tree sits with us by a table piled with books. I see one, battered, moss green, slim. Picking it up, I do not recognize the name: Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu. I file truths:
The Sage rules
By emptying hearts and filling bellies
By weakening ambitions and strengthening bones
Away from knowing and wanting;
Deters those who know too much
From going too far:
I read in a magazine of a woman who suffered a psychotic episode. Her story is a stone at the mind’s shore, its defined characteristics rounded by time’s laps. I pick up the stone, turn it over and over in an attempt to re-chisel edges, re-define details, re-carve truths, but these efforts only serve to create a smoothness in the memory. I remember what suits, what fits.
The woman in this article (we’ll call her Sarah) is with her friend (we’ll call her Claire). They are in the kitchen. As they talk Claire transforms into whirring knives and scissors, stabbing, slicing, attacking. A terrified Sarah charges out of the house in a blind panic, careers into the street, tumbles badly and cuts herself. An ambulance is called. Sarah is committed and medicated until she can experience the world in a normal fashion again.
In this reality the woman-of-knives is not the problem.
The woman who sees them is.
I look to the man-who-is-a-bird. He has pale-white fishing lines hooked into everyone he meets. Including the tree-woman and me. I do not believe we have agreed to this. Am I doing the same? Is it me? A mirror?
He is two: firstly the teacher, the preacher-silhouette, the friend. He is a Good Man, unaware of his other self, the sneering Gollum whispering into long-cast shadows.
I return to Lao Tzu:
Ku yu wu hsiang sheng
Is and Isn’t produce each other
Question: how do I know what is real?
Answer: γνῶθι σεαυτόν – know thyself.
Know thyself? Where do I start? Who can teach this? We are broken people. Our roots are torn from the earth, fed into the machine, chipped and moulded into 4 by 8 feet sheets of MDF used to build things we do not need. I cannot wander. There is no quest.
I return to the hills, forests and lakes of Y Gogledd Cymru. This is where I begin.
The hills call. I walk. Through university exams, essays, kung-fu training, parenthood, parties. I cannot stop. The seasons turn. I cannot bear shoes – tear them off. Walk. Know moss-fondled-feet. Crisp leaves whisper under arches. Cold, wet grass and mud-squirmed-toes are unimagined joy. An aversion to pavements, tarmac and gravel transcends fear of scuffed skin, dog poo and thorns. I have a Japanese geometric print tattooed in thick black swirls across the left foot. Trauma and ink cause it to swell and double in size so that I must walk a chill, damp October with bears’ feet.
Two distinct areas form in the memory: before and after. I decide to treat these interesting psychological episodes like the flu, a temporary illness to get over. I will seek out the return path to wellness, put on shoes. Get back to myself… to where? To who?
I become psychological compartmentalisation:
One half is staunchly cynical, fervently worshipping non-belief. The natural world cannot communicate. Shamanism is a sham, a trick for the weak of mind. Nothing exists outside this solid actuality. I am a baby tightly swaddled in logic’s thick, dense, fog – myopic, deaf. Cocooned in comfort-blanket-thoughts, I strive for normality. Certain activities aid a steady and reasoned perspective, these are: shopping, watching TV, reading newspapers, driving, reading medical explanations for psychosis, following politics, work, drinking, taking drugs. This is the world. The place we inhabit. Real. Sane.
The other half embraces voices, visions. I can prevent these manifestations no more than I can stop breathing. The waking dreams are material, tangible, sometimes rippling out to affect visible changes in the real world. I perceive these subtle, unknowable, and yet undeniable interactions. I am awake. Have I slept for an age? Thick fog dissipates to reveal intuition, self-knowledge. There are things I must do: write poetry, walk in nature, wild swim, mountain bike, work in my community, learn Cymraeg, read poetry and novels, experience art and live music, strive to connect with family.
Question: what is the issue here?
Answer: I am afraid to believe in myself.
Regardless of what I believe, the earth has shifted to stand me at the mountain’s peak. Surrounded by valleys and plains I confidently state, ‘There are no mountains’.
We do not sing to mountains, recite poems to trees. These are unnecessary, superfluous actions. Like breathing.
Wrapped in dragon-fire I feel heart-hills settle. This is not a metaphor. It is real. A physical sensation; a weight in the chest. Comforting. Terrifying. I stumble across mountains: solid, cold, dense. I experience mountains: hollow magnifiers-of-souls. The wise remain small.
The Cymraeg have a word: hiraeth (the i as in igloo). It is used to the point of cliché.
Hiraeth /hɪəraɪ̯θ/ is a Welsh word that has no direct English translation.
The University of Wales, Lampeter attempts to define it as homesickness
tinged with grief or sadness over the lost or departed. It is a mix of longing,
yearning, nostalgia, wistfulness, or an earnest desire for the Wales of the past.
This word becomes me. This land becomes me.
Nimbling ant-like over fleshed grass, people carry their equally interesting hearts. I see the fox, the owl, the salmon, the crow. I know the woman who is a tree (she does not know she is a tree) and the man-with-wings (who is a bird). I watch a woman struggle with a grand jewelled engine-heart of glitter and smoke; a healer whose work demands the roots of a tree (when she is a butterfly); and the man whose heart is so great he will not acknowledge it for fear of what it might expect of him.
I walk into a familiar supermarket. Grief strikes a sudden, sharp blow – knocks the air from my chest. Intense emotion spasms knees. I almost fall to the ground; howl out across the Isles. Something old and primeval rages at this mortuary of death stacked upon death. Nothing lives here. No trees. No wild animals. No water flows freely. Rows of ant-people shoulder dead items wrapped in death. The earth’s weight wrenches my ribcage. I cannot breathe. Mountains bellow. Winds shriek. What is this place? Time freezes. I do not move or speak. I cannot reconcile this.
I am kaleidoscopic. Multiple reflections of Self jumble. I shake the tube, twist. Logic takes centre stage. These are not suitable thoughts. You are not lost. Straighten. Breathe. This is how we live now. Acceptance is the only way forward. And anyway… This Is Not Real.
I walk. Shop. Breathe. Smile. Checkout.
Everywoman: The Fear
Bum yn lliaws rith
kyn bum disgyfrith
I am everywoman. This knowledge hums through me. I ring with it. Sonorous. There is nothing I cannot achieve. I breathe, create, invent. I am strong. We are seachange. The first rule of Kung Fu is do not be afraid. I have no fear.
I am in
I am out
I am up
I am down
I am left
I am right
I am everywoman. I read of women who heal, teach, mother; pioneers who tear out their hearts every day in the hope of creating a better world. I read of women who are raped, trafficked, abused, murdered – and the women who help them. I read of women who lie, cheat, steal, kill – and the women who incarcerate them. I could be any of these women. I am all of these women. We are one.
It is too much.
I cannot reconcile this. Fear of all that we are, of all that I am, becomes a soul-silencing black rat chewing the tongue from the paralysed Self. It is nails screeching down blackboards. It is waking in the night infested with demons that burrow beneath skin as old ghosts tramp through the bedroom vomiting appalling truths. It is the blackened grief of the illuminated mind. I do not fear death. I fear life, and what we do with it. I am suffocated with horror. We are one? It hurts to look anybody in the eye. Being around people becomes a terrifying ordeal. I am afraid for all children.
I am ruin. I am the woman blasting holes in mountains, the woman selling women into prostitution, the hedge-fund-manageress. I am the angry, judgmental woman. I understand now why we drink – it numbs us from the truth of who we are. I drown in newspapers, trash-TV and alcohol.
In the centre of this darkness whispers a voice I cannot ignore. She is persistent. Unrelenting. This is who I am. This is who we are, in all of our horrendous glory. Acceptance is the only way forward.
Words are hope. I read:
…I’m the vagabond woman
I’m the defiant woman…
…I’m the demented woman
I’m the demimonde woman
I’m the woman deracinated, the woman destroyed, the detonating woman, the demon woman…
…I’m the woman with the weight on her shoulders
I’m the woman with the weight on her back
I’m the old woman
I’m the stooped over woman
I’m the barefoot woman…
…I’m the woman who dreams
I’m the woman who exhales…
…I’m the woman with the keys
I’m the woman with the glue…
-excerpts from Anne Waldman’s, Fast Speaking Woman
I am the woman planting orchards, the woman who teaches in schools and refuges, who works in the community. I am the poet connecting to the land. I accept these truths.
I am everywoman.
…and Caradog’s heart broke from bewilderment at seeing the sword kill his men… (And he was one of the Three People who Broke their Hearts from Sorrow.)
– The Second Branch of The Mabinogion, translated by Sioned Davies.
I am harried by the man-with-wings. He is fretting for an emerging butterfly. Her eye labours to open, he applies a patch. A wing struggles to unfurl, he devises a clever mechanical support. An antenna is crooked, he fastens a splint; stitches cloth to a wing that might tear. She limps away, grateful.
I am devastated.
As a teenager I read voraciously. The fates of many characters remain with me. Now I am minded of Vorbis, a man righteous in the knowledge of a higher power, certain this force directs his actions. At the end of the story Vorbis’ spirit stands in the desert:
There had been a voice… Surely, there had been a voice? But all he could remember was the sound of his own thoughts, bouncing off the inside of his own head.
– Terry Pratchett, Small Gods
I watch the man-with-wings work. My heart breaks. This is not a metaphor. It is a pain in the chest. A slight pop. Mountains crumble. The fire dragon diminishes. She is weak, tiny; burns with a pale flame until two days later she is gone.
I am bereft, bewildered. Am I dead? I breathe. The fire dragon is dead. I live. I do not know what this is. Think. Apply logic: acceptance is the only way forward. I am not dead. I am different. Changed. Sometimes I wonder if I sit still enough, quiet enough, I could feel the universe breathe.
Years later I read the The Mabinogion:
After that the place was called Dinas Emrys, and before that it had been Dinas Ffaraon Dandde. Ffaraon Dandde was one of the Three Chief Officers who Broke his Heart from Sorrow.
I recognise truth. Squirrel words away. Dig them out again. Turn pages. Devour. Create.
Here Ends Hanes.
Hanes pt 1