Leaving with Flowers

Yesterday I finished my graduate ecologist job with Ecology Services Ltd in Longton. It was a bittersweet moment for I had worked with a brilliant team who are amongst the nicest people I have ever met and in many ways the jobs was ideal. There were lots of learning opportunities, a lot of support, and a high level of professionalism in the rigour of the writing and editing of reports. 

However, I could not cope with the demands of the job due to my autism. These included some stresses endemic to ecology and others more widely to the working world – night shifts, long hours, travelling to new places, frequent changes in routine, working to tight deadlines, multi-tasking, spending 7.5 hours in front of a screen with limited breaks for lunch and brews.

When I first started seeking work in the environmental sector, in conservation, in 2019, I did so under the mistaken idea that it would be like conservation volunteering – practical and survey work every day of the week. As I progressed from volunteer, to volunteer intern, to paid trainee, I realised that such jobs are few and far between and that most people are expected to ‘progress’ to taking responsibility for project and people management. 

Most paths lead from outdoors to the office and require skills outside my skillset – being good with spreadsheets and numbers and mastering the horrendously complex and counterintuitive mapping system which has been the bane of my life since I started following this career path – QGIS.

It’s taken me a while to realise I’ve made a wrong turning for some of the right reasons (such as wanting to learn more about the fascinating plant and animal species who we live alongside of and wanting to give back to the land) and some of the wrong reasons (such as wanting to excel and climb the career ladder and craving not only financial security but more money than I need).

In the process I have gained my creativity and my commitment to my spiritual vocation as an awenydd in service to my Gods and Goddesses back. I have learnt that this is where my skills and passion lie and that I must put this first, whether it means either working full time for a while to buy time for my creativity or working part-time and creating alongside my work. 

As my work is so niche and, a long while back, I sacrificed my ambition to be a professional writer to Gwyn, my Patron God, in return for inspiration from the Otherworld, I know I will never make a living from writing alone so must go on trying to strike a balance between the all-consuming demands of the awen and my financial needs. 

On my last day my colleagues bought me flowers along with a card and a book. I think it’s the first time in my life I’ve ever been bought flowers. Beautiful, fragrant, a reminder of a sometimes lovely and sometimes difficult time.

I have no regrets, only memories, which will soon pass like flowers, not to be forgotten, but to be left behind, as I leave the environmental sector, to devote the next two or three years this time has bought to writing my next three books.

Midsummer Madness and ‘In the Deep’

Three long years, almost devoid of inspiration, since I made my lifelong vows to You, where have You been? You told me to plant cottongrass. Afterwards, I strayed from vocation to career, to safety and security, lashing myself to the Oak. When You wanted me to fall, instead, I climbed a little higher and clung on, resisting the inevitable, why would I resist the fall into Your Cauldron?

*

Three years ago, on the Night of the Super Blood Wolf Moon, I made my lifelong vows to my patron god, Gwyn ap Nudd. I didn’t know what would happen, but I hoped it would be like my first set of vows in 2013 when I dedicated myself to Him as His Apprentice and wrote three books for Him in three years.

Nope. It was incredibly messy. A stress fracture to my foot. An umbilical hernia operation. My navel displaced and all the world around me out of synch. I wanted rebirth. Now. But that was not what the tarot cards showed me.

On that night I held a vigil, before the Lunar Eclipse, at 5.12am, of Seven Hours. For each hour a card and I cannot yet speak of them all but can say I used the Wildwood Tarot and the cards that concern this article were the third and the fourth – ’16 – The Blasted Oak’ and the ‘Eight of Vessels – Rebirth.’

I’m into the third year and moving into the fourth. After my peatland conservation traineeship on the Manchester Mosslands I’d wanted to stay on in spite of the driving distance and, when I realised I could not, I’d applied for and gained a local ecology job, not knowing fully what that entailed.

A series of autistic meltdowns later, brought on by doing just one shift of nightwork and shifting from physical outdoor work to intensive survey work and technical report writing along with trying to master the QGIS mapping system, reduced me to a state in which I couldn’t remember the word for a PDF and to collapsing in tears in the middle of a golf course, in a hard hat and hi-vis, whilst removing bat statics with one of our bemused contractors.

Gods damned autism, why can’t I be normal, neurotypical? Is this autism or some kind of rebellion of my soul? At first I was gutted when I realised my limitations meant I could never be an ecologist, and then the inspiration returned.

‘believing in the illusion of material power can only end in spiritual isolation, stagnation and collapse… as we fall, the power that floods our senses with pain also cleanses and burns away the illusions and falsehoods… our senses are alive with with the heat of life. Our emotions are ablaze with passion. Perhaps we had forgotten the intensity of desire, the need to keep struggling for understanding. The essence of true strength and enduring spirit cannot be bought with gold or position or grandiose esoteric theory. It is found in the ashes of and flames of nature’s own ‘wild’ card.’
– The Wildwood Tarot

The heat of life. The blaze of passion. In the visions that surrounded the tarot cards I was a bird shot down from the Oak Tree, who fell into the Cauldron, only I was not just boiled in the Cauldron, blood and bones, but I became it.

After I handed in my notice the inspiration returned. A book called ‘The Dragon’s Tongue’, which I began in the first lockdown, in 2020, an attempt at writing an ancient British creation myth with the perspectives of Gwyn and Creiddylad, rulers of Annwn, the Otherworld, at its heart, demanded to be rewritten. 

It was as if, again, I’d become the Cauldron, and could not stop boiling until it was done. Over midsummer, when I’d taken some outstanding leave, I completed the first draft over five dazzling days, hardly dare to look back at it.

It’s called ‘In the Deep’ and I hope it will form a trilogy with two other books whose titles have been in my mind – ‘The Gates of Annwn’ and ‘The Black Dragon’. 

Over the past couple of years I have learnt the cost of sacrificing vocation for career, the void of lack of creativity, the foolishness of trying to lash myself to the Oak. The futility of the attempts, the pretence, of being ‘normal’. What next?

Of Worldly Career and Spiritual Vocation

So it reaches an end. The trajectory that began with volunteering on local nature reserves, took me into paid work restoring the Manchester Mosslands, and eventually led to me working for a local ecological consultancy on developments across the North West. 

Whereas my choice to work in conservation was guided my Gods, when my traineeship reached its end, and no conservation positions came up, I chose my ecology job because it was local, permanent, well paid, and offered financial security, and because I had a good interview and liked the people.

I knew next to nothing about ecology, the high pressure environment, how distant some of the sites would be, or how badly working nights would affect my mental health. I hadn’t thought through how I’d feel about working for developers, some just people who needed a bat survey for an extension on their home, but others who wanted to build on green spaces and nature reserves.

Working just one night a week, the dread beforehand and the tiredness afterwards, had a massive impact on my mental health due to my need for a regular routine and sleep pattern as an autistic person who suffers from anxiety. 

This, combined with travelling to sites over an hour’s drive away, and learning to write technical reports and mastering an unneccessarily complex and counterintuitive mapping system called QGIS whilst, at the same time, organising surveys, preparing quotes, and replying to clients, swiftly led to stress and burnt out.

Within a matter of weeks I went from being a happy, fit, and confident person with hopes of excelling in botany, pursuing an MSc in ecology, and running an official half marathon to being unable to read academic articles or comprehend the logistics of getting to a run or navigating the crowds.

I started waking early in the morning in tears and crying until I went to the gym or on a run and somehow cried all the way through a run on a very bad day.

I turned up in tears, managed to get on with my work, in spite of the crushing feeling in head, which increased as the day went on and throughout the week. I drove the wrong way up to M62 and through a red traffic light. I got hopelesssly muddled on a survey and drew the map the wrong way up. One day my brain melted to the point I couldn’t recall what a PDF was.

My manager took me off nights and I stayed because I liked the team, who were kind and supportive, because I didn’t want to let them down, because it was my mistake for rushing into what was the wrong job but right location and people.

I didn’t speak much to my Gods at first. But when drinking ceased to cure my troubles and I realised it was doing me more harm than good, both in my work life, and strength training and running performance, I began to pray. 

I began to seek a place of retreat and healing as respite from an overwhelming world. “Remember who you are,” said Gwyn, recalling me to my vocation as an awenydd, as Sister Patience, as a nun of Annwn.

Somewhat laughably, as is often the case of Gwyn, at a time when I was craving financial security due to fear of losing my job, He told me do the thing least likely to make money in the world – “build the Monastery of Annwn”.

Yet His imperative, my vocation, could not be ignored. I have set up the Monastery of Annwn as a virtual space; started laying the foundations in terms of daily devotions, a ritual year, and practices such as journeying to Annwn and tending Creiddylad’s Garden; and begun dialogue with others.

Desiring to partake in lectio divina and lacking an Annuvian creation myth I have been inspired to return to writing one – a pursuit I began a couple of years back with a book called The Dragon’s Tongue, which didn’t work out. 

This attempt to weave a new creation story, from the perspective of the Annuvian Gods, from the existing Welsh and Irish myths and also drawing on the Mesopotamian epic ‘Enuma Elish’ and the Bible has been renewed as ‘In the Deep’ (the antithesis of ‘When On High’ – the translation of ‘Enuma Elish’). 

In returning to devotional writing I have found deep joy, which has dissipated as soon as the stresses of work and worldly career have got in the way. 

This positive discovery/recovery combined with the knowledge that, as an autistic person, I am not suited to full time high pressure work, has led to the decision to hand in my notice at my ecology job and seek less stressful, part time work in conservation or horticulture that will allow me to fulfil my vocation.

It has been a relief and a release. Although I have two months’ notice to work I have a myth to tend, a monastery to build, and can find solace at my altar and in Creiddylad’s garden, where the bees are loving the blue geraniums and the foxgloves I grew from seed last year are looking magnificent.

I Awenydd

“Remember who you are.”

I am an awenydd of Annwn.

I am a keeper of an ancient monastery
(yes this monastery is ancient although
its builders only built it yesterday).

Likewise I am born from the Deep.

I am forged in Annwn’s fires.

I am the creation of a myriad creatures
who continue to live within me,
barking, stampeding.

I am born of the Dragon-Headed Mother.
The nine elements swirl within me.

I live by the rule of awen*.

My destiny lies before me.

~

This poem was born from a time of crisis and struggle as I have suffered from poor mental health as a result of working a late shift as I find it very difficult to cope with changes in routine and sleeping pattern as an autistic person.

Following the realisation I can’t make a living from my vocation as an awenydd, for the last three years I have poured most of my energy into pursuing a career that is in alignment with my spiritual values. I’ve volunteered my way into paid work in conservation, completed a year-long conservation traineeship, and gained a permanent job as an ecologist.

There is a lot to like about ecology. There is much to learn. I get to visit varied sites. There is an art to getting the best deal for people and nature. But the job is also high pressure and, in many consultancies, (thankfully not mine) there is a complete disregard for mental health with junior ecologists working several nights a week and being expected to keep up with day work

I have been lucky to gain work with a team who are not only friendly and professional but aware of and supportive around mental health problems and have allowed me to cut down nights and take time out for counselling.

Over the period I have been developing my career I have had less time for my spiritual vocation and, it’s sad to say, have only fallen back on it at a time of crisis, when my work alone has not been enough to pull me through.

Having realised that my difficulties with night work will mean I cannot become a good all round ecologist (I will not be able to get my great crested newt and bat licences and will be limited to developing my abilities with habitat and vegetation surveys and protected species I can survey by day) I’ve been questioning if this is the right career path and assessing where my talents lie.

“Remember who you are,” I have heard the voice of my God, Gwyn, on a few occasions, reminding me of my vow to Him, to serve as His awenydd.

This has led to the realisation that I’ve been living an unbalanced life. Devoting too much time to Thisworld and not enough to Annwn, the Deep.

This doesn’t mean that I’ve made a poor choice of job, but outside it, whereas I was spending all my free time reading ecology books and articles, trying to record and memorise plants, and carrying out extra surveys, I need to make room for the soul-world.

From this has been born the Monastery of Annwn as a sanctuary to retreat to; where the Gods and the Deep are revered and honoured and put first; as a place that provides the strength to return to Thisworld and pursue one’s awen/destiny**.

*The phrase ‘the rule of awen’ is not my own but is one of the principles of the Gnostic Celtic Church which resonates deeply with me. 
**In Medieval Welsh poetry ‘awen’ means not only inspiration but destiny.

Autism and Challenge

Last September I was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder level one, a lifelong neurodevelopmental disability. This is the ‘mildest level’ and is given to people who can cope with some situations so well that others do not know there is a difference in the way they process information, but once they get to know them, and see them in more challenging situations, notice the differences.

I was told that it is possible to ‘move up and down the levels’. Although I have never been at a level where I need a support worker, it has certainly been the case that I have moved up and down level one – had some phases in my life where I have felt almost neurotypical and others when I’ve felt very autistic.

I have noticed this most acutely in my response to challenge and what constitutes a challenge. Many easy, everyday activities, which are not challenging for a neurotypical person are often very challenging for an autistic person. This is due to a combination of sensory sensitivity and the anxiety that comes from difficulties with interpreting social signals and processing complex information from multiple sources at once.

I hit my lowest level in my early twenties when I was in the second year of university when I had what I believe, looking back, to be an autistic meltdown. This was brought on by the combination of the pressures of achieving a good degree and by poor lifestyle choices – going out drinking and taking drugs two or three times nights a week disrupted my sleep pattern and left me with insomnia, anxiety, and experiences of derealisation.

A massive panic attack on the motorway led me to give up driving. It was a challenge to get out of the house, onto the bus, and to university. I sat at the back in lectures, crying quietly, silent tears running down my face. Everything, everyone, was threatening. When I talked to my lecturers I felt so panicky and light-headed I thought I was going to faint or float away. One day I sat alone staring at a tomato on my sandwich unable to recall what it was.

Nobody noticed. When I had occasional sobbing fits or freaked out about something the response of my ‘friends’ was ‘Lorna’s going west again.’

***

Eventually I sought help. I had a good doctor. We worked out that sleeping tablets and beta blockers weren’t helpful for my insomnia or panic attacks. I got put on a medication called Venlafaxine that helped regulate my sleeping patterns and mood and allowed me to establish a healthy sleep and exercise regime.

Unfortunately, when I was referred to a psychiatrist, I was told I wasn’t eligible for treatment because I hadn’t attempted suicide, in spite of self-harming.

Luckily the medication and developing a good routine helped (it was also helpful that I couldn’t drink on Venflaxine!). I ‘got better’ and, in my third year, got 80% in my dissertation, resulting in a first class degree in Philosophy and English.

Since coming off medication I have had many ups and downs. Sleep and exercise have been the key to leading a near-normal life, but I have been unable to overcome a number of challenges that neurotypical people can handle.

I failed to cope with working nearly full-time at the same time as studying for a PhD (as I didn’t get funding). When I worked as a groom I struggled with six day weeks, late nights and early mornings, and the stress of preparing for competitions.

During the period I moved back in with my parents and devoted my time to my spiritual path and writing, at some points working part-time and at some not at all, I was able to live by my ideal routine, getting up early, doing my devotions, writing, exercising, gardening, early bed. But the benefits of this lifestyle were overshadowed by my anxieties about my inability to make a living.

***

When I realised I would never be able to make a living from my writing I turned to conservation, as something I’d volunteered in, and believed in. Slowly I took the steps, faced the challenges, of progressing from a volunteer, to a volunteer intern, to a trainee, before moving into ecology.

As an autistic person every new thing was challenging – travelling to a new place, meeting a new group, learning a new task or to use a new tool. On my first day as an intern at Brockholes I was terrified of using a radio due to how self conscious I felt about my voice and of losing the key to the tool cabin.

With support I progressed to being able to do most of the tasks needed for the smooth running of LWT’s flagship reserve including driving the pick-up (which I was, at first, extremely nervous about reversing due to poor spatial awareness).

It helped that I figured out I was autistic when I was in counselling for anxiety at this point, so was able to locate the root of my limitations and explain them to the reserve officers, who were both supportive and understanding.

My traineeship with the Lancashire Wildlife Trust on the Manchester mosslands was even more challenging not only due to the long drive but to stepping up from a volunteer into a paid role and taking on more responsibility.

I faced and overcame a number of challenges such as leading volunteer work parties and AQAs, passing machinery tickets, and carrying out surveys. I coped because I was open with my line manager about my autism and he gave me a manageable workload and a regular routine.

Completing my traineeship gave me a lot more confidence and led to me gaining a new job as a graduate ecologist at a local ecological consultancy. This job has brought its own challenges – new surveys, new vans to drive, driving to new places, and, again, my manager and my colleagues have been very understanding about my autism and allowed me to tackle one thing at a time.

The thing I have found most difficult, which surprised me at first, but shouldn’t have done looking back, has been dealing with night work. During my traineeship I had a fixed routine of getting up at 4.30am, doing my devotions and meditation, exercising, then working five hours onsite and two and a half hours admin from home flexibly, eating, bathing, studying and/or writing and getting to sleep by 8.30pm.

Going out to do great crested newt surveys when I would be going to bed and getting in a few hours after my bed time has been draining and disorientating. The next day and, for a couple of days afterwards, I’ve not only felt tired but been in a low mood and had trouble concentrating and with fending off negative thoughts that don’t usually come through when I’ve had eight hours sleep.

It has been a blessing to be part of a team who are very aware about mental health. I have told my manager how important both sleep and exercise are to maintaining my mental health and we have agreed that I never need to start earlier than 8am, so I can get my exercise in, and I can do only one night a week. In a profession in which night work is central I am very grateful for this.

In the couple of months I have been at Ecology Services Ltd I have not only learnt to carry out surveys, but the process from start to finish, from speaking to a client, setting up a quote, organising the survey, doing it, and writing a report, and found a great deal of pride in doing the job and doing it well.

At present I’m coping and feel like I’ve grown in confidence quite a lot. However, I am apprehensive about the fact that the nights are getting longer and that bat season, the busiest time of the year, is approaching. I am hoping that, with continued support, I will be able to make it through the summer.

Autism and Living in the Fog

I was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder Level One* on the 28th of September. 

The day before Gwyn’s Feast. “Happy Autism Day,” he said, “welcome to my people.”

Still, I didn’t feel much like celebrating. I’d hoped that a diagnosis would bring clarity. However, being told that I have a lifelong neuro-developmental disorder or disability cast me into a fog of wondering how much my autism had played a role in my difficulties with social relationships and to hold a stable career in the past and how it was going to affect my future. 

I’ve been a trainee with the Lancashire Wildlife Trust on the Manchester Mosslands since April. It’s been a great job, on great sites, with great people.  Yet my enjoyment of the practical work of growing, planting, translocating, clearing scrub, building dead hedges, of the remarkable opportunity to restore the last remnants of our mosslands to their boggy glory has been overshadowed, fogged, by my anxiety about what people think of me, whether I’m doing well enough, measuring up, whether I will be able to progress to the next position up in this competitive job industry.

I’ve felt like I’ve been on trial and in some ways I have and in some I have not. I know my colleagues would rather I enjoyed my traineeship than see it that way. Still, I’ve had to meet my short term objectives and training targets. When it comes to progress I will have to meet the next person specification.

Good news is that a meeting with my line manager and project manager recently revealed in just six months, in spite of being autistic, I am nearly there. 

Job-wise I’m good. Still, I’ve spent a lot of time dwelling on how my autism and the anxiety that stems from being an autistic person in a neurotypical world, finding it hard to read people and projecting negative opinions of myself, has skewed my perceptions of others and affected my relationships.

Few of us are psychic, but being autistic leaves me less able to judge what others think and feel unless I am directly told. Living with uncertainty is tough but, I’m learning, is better than living with the false certainty everyone hates me.

One of the upsides of living in the fog is the moments it parts like when a friend and I were lost on Cadair Idris and, after a man and his dog approached, the mists shifted and we found ourselves looking down on Llyn Cau. Being able to see and speak the uncomfortable truths that others avoid or ignore.

At least I know I’m living in the fog and, as a devotee of Gwyn ap Nudd, ‘White son of Mist,’ can know and embrace it as my patron god and as a friend.

“Welcome to my people,” he says and I see the faces of all the others down the centuries who have been able to swing an axe or a mattock or push a wheelbarrow, to write poetry under the trees, to walk light-footed as a will-o-wisp across a peat-bog but could not endure one day of electric light in the office.

“Welcome to my people,” he says, “to doubt, uncertainty, anxiety, and truth.”

In the fog, in the unknowing, I walk along the bunds that will bring the peat-bogs back then disappear into the moss as it swallows its surroundings.

It’s cold here and it’s November, but at least I know I’m living in the fog.

*This is the current term for what was formerly known as Asperger’s Syndrome.