My Hawthorn Mind

Beneath the tall blue sky the white-blossomed hawthorns dance. Twisted, gnarled, they are beautiful in their imperfection. They cast no judgement on themselves or others.

People are not like trees with their constrictive norms of body and mind. Look at me from the outside and (aside from the lockdown hair which resembles something between a hedgehog, a mushroom, and a duck’s arse) and you will see a ‘normal’ thirty-eight-year-old woman – able-bodied, physically fit, average-looking. Talk to me at a Pagan or poetry event and I might pass. Get to know me over a few days, a month, a couple of years and you may notice the scars, physical and psychological, catch a glimpse of my hawthorn mind. The twists, the gnarls, the thorns turned out and in.

Since primary school I’ve felt mentally crippled. Highly intelligent but socially inept. Being speccy-four-eyed, pot-bellied in my puppy fat, and lower middle-class with a southern accent at a school on a northern council estate (which was once referred to as ‘the Beirut of Preston’) didn’t help. I was mercilessly bullied.

Eventually I learnt not to talk about the fairies at the bottom of my garden or my imaginary friends. To feign an interest in the other children’s gossip about each other and celebs and to watch the soaps so I could join in (even though I hated them and would much rather have been lost in the imaginal worlds of the Faraway Tree, Narnia, or Krynn).

When I hit my teens I found a crutch. Alcohol. It helped me disguise my social limp, to keep limping along when otherwise I’d have fallen flat on my face in a gormless heap. It quickly became a cure-all. It obliviated, for a while, my feeling of being different. It helped me find words when I had none, to kiss boys when I had no desire to, to find oblivion when I could not sleep, to dance when I wanted to lie down and die.

Between the drink and the drugs and working hard toward my philosophy and English degree I sometimes wondered what was wrong. It wasn’t until my third year when I had a particularly bad meltdown during which, in vision, I was sitting on a rock at the end of the world unable to decide whether to live or die, that I decided to seek help.

I got a standard diagnosis of ‘anxiety and depression’, a packet of anti-depressants, and a referral to a psychiatrist who refused to help me because I wasn’t suicidal at the time, despite having constant panic attacks, suffering from insomnia, and self-harming.

The anti-depressants worked and, perhaps partly because I couldn’t drink on them, I excelled in my final year. I gained a first by getting 80% on my dissertation on the sublime, the writing of which, unknown to my tutors, was my way of understanding the undoing of my own mind by panic brought about by social and/or sensory overwhelm.

After failing to get funding for my PhD, with a career in horses, and to write a fantasy novel, all the while continuing to battle with anxiety and depression and using alcohol again as crutch, I finally met my patron god, Gwyn ap Nudd. He helped me find meaning and purpose in my life as his awenydd, taking me to other worlds, and out of myself to perform poetry. For the first time in my life, in service to him, I did not fail. I wrote three books and the climax was the performance for Gatherer of Souls.

My depression lifted. I found I didn’t hate myself, others, or the world so much any more. When I discovered the possibility of finding paid work that fit with my vocation and hoped wouldn’t be too taxing on my mental health through volunteering with the Lancashire Wildlife Trust I found the strength to kick away the crutch.

Yet the anxiety I had been using alcohol to medicate remained and threatened to be my undoing as my dread of social situations and feeling of being overwhelmed grew. I tried the doctors again and, this time, refusing anti-depressants, was offered counselling.

Three months on, in the midst of lockdown, I’ve started CBT and, during this period, had a revelation that came not from my counsellor but from my mum which explains why I feel so different: she’d always thought I had Asperger’s, but didn’t know how to tell me!

Suddenly everything made sense. My highly focused interests: philosophy, horses, visionary poetry, Brythonic polytheism, my singular devotion to Gwyn. My problems with social communication and human relationships and inability to understand how other people can want to talk about each other and celebrities rather than pursuing ‘that one thing’. That my feelings of panic and overwhelm are symptoms of autistic meltdown.

That this is the reason I have been stuck in a constant cycle of wanting to find paid work and to have a small role in my communities locally and online, but failing because I don’t recognise the limitations brought about by Asperger’s, which lead to me getting anxious, overwhelmed, and burnt out, and giving up, and feeling like a failure.

That it’s likely I have Asperger’s was confirmed when I scored 7/10* in the AQ10 test on the phone with my counsellor a couple of days ago. I’m hoping for a referral to the Lancashire Autism Service (which I understand will take a while particularly at this time).

Looking back a part of me feels bitter. If I’d received a diagnosis as a child perhaps I would have recognised my limitations, wouldn’t have hated myself so much for being different, wouldn’t have got so anxious and depressed, (yet another whispers perhaps I’d have felt worse…).

Another part says I wouldn’t have learnt the lessons I’ve learnt. It’s possible that, living a more sheltered life, ‘the doors of the perception’ to the visionary realms would never have opened, that I’d never have met Gwyn and never become his awenydd.

My gut feeling is that now, during the lockdown, when I’ve got plenty of time to reflect on and process it and work through how it might affect me in the future and plan ahead, is the perfect time to find out. I might have gone to pieces otherwise.

As I walk beside the twisted white-blossomed hawthorns I come to understand my differences. To not only accept but celebrate the twists and gnarls of my hawthorn mind.

*6/10 or above suggests somebody has Asperger’s.

The Old Grey Man of Lancashire

He wears twigs for antlers,
a long wolfish face
and smile or grimace
trapped somewhere between.

His coat is staring and grey
as something dead for years.

A bottomless cloak
covers what he’d call his feet.

When he moves, he sways
like something blown in on the wind.

He staggers,
tilting like a chess piece,
holds out a black pad with yellow claws,
unable to unlock heavy jaws,
mumbles, “beri, beri, beri.”

His words are grey as the melting moor
fading with the sense
of his request or question.

Does he want berries,
or does he want me to bury him?

He shivers with the hills,
passes away into a crack of light.

~

I wrote this poem in July after a vivd dream where I saw the sketchy image below, there labelled ‘an old grey man of lancashire,’ in vivid purple on a black computer screen. After waking, I scribbled it in my dream journal.

The Old Grey Man of Lancashire

 

 

 

 

In the space between waking and dream before my alarm clock went off the scene in the poem came to me. Fans of Ted Hughes may recognise that I was immersed in ‘The Remains of Elmet’ at the time and this colours the imagery.

A couple of days later, planning a walk, I had an impulse to visit Brinscall. Getting the map out, I noticed nearby was Old Man’s Hill, which became the destination on a suitably grey Lancashire day. I encountered a ram beside a strangely rooted hawthorn but nothing extraordinary happened and I received no clear answer to my pondery.

Brinscall and Old Man's HillSheep, Brinscall MoorsOld Man's Hill

Gwyn Portrait, April’s End

The huntsman has ridden all night, following the brilliance of the spirit roads- the shining tracks that criss-cross the island of Britain. Instead of returning home he remains here for dawn, listening to the idiosyncrasies of each bird’s song, watching dew form on blades of grass, on petals of hawthorn blossoms and may flowers.

He is and is not the mist, riding through damp meadows over hills, mountains and moors on a pale horse accompanied by a hound of the same complexion. He is and is not each sun-lit cloud he travels with, the touch and whisper of the wind.

He cannot stay here long, for this world we see as the land of the living is not his. He must return home to Annwn, the Otherworld, to prepare for a battle that cannot be won. To fight for a maiden he shouldn’t have loved, shouldn’t still love… in bluebells and forget-me-nots, emerging greens and white and yellow flowers he sees her colours.

For a moment he is possessed by memories of their passion, and the crimes it drove him to. A glimpse of his blacked face in a reed strewn pool shows no amount of war paint can mask his guilt, which he must live with for as long as there are people to sing his songs.

He searches for a sign. What is Judgement Day? When is it? Although he knows the language of the trees and plants, the tracks of every wild creature and the flight of birds, these questions are beyond his power to divine. When the worlds end, will Creiddylad and I be together again?

May Flower, Penwortham

Expanding the By-Pass

Daffodils leap like shots of fire.
Primroses curse in white-yellow stains.
Blackthorn’s eldritch stars explode
As chainsaws rip aside the bright spring day.

Mock cairns of woodchip
Spat from hawthorn’s frame
Line the road of death
I will drive down
I will drive down to avoid the rain.

Penwortham By-Pass

 

 

 

 

 

 

*Technically I won’t be driving down the by-pass because I swapped my car for a bicycle. However I’m not adverse to getting a lift and still feel responsible for the death of the hawthorns who have been companions on the path beside the by-pass for many years.

Lady of the Oak

I leave the shelter of the grove ducking beneath twisted hawthorn branches. The trees weave the entrance closed behind me. Rain hits my face, falling from a heaven of relentless grey. Reading the sky’s grimace I wonder what has been seen.

A crow caws his warning. Sprinting toward me up the hollow way I see a young man, legs a blur of blue white checkers and feet a splash of mud and leather. Hair slicked to his head, his dark eyes flicker with awe and wariness. The first dapples of a beard play across his chin like leafy shadows.

“M-my Lady of the Oak,” he stammers pulling up.

His breathless chest heaves beneath a sodden tunic. It is rare for youths to approach me without an elder. Looking more closely at my gnarled face his eyes widen in dawning horror. “Bad news travels from up river. A Man of the Oak wishes to speak with you.” He runs away in a flurry of muddy feet.

I follow down the hollow way heedless of the downpour weighing my cloak for the damp of the air already resides deep within my bones. Looking east, rain drenches the green hill, our sacred headland, and the greener barrow housing our ancestors. The torrent’s drumming beat strikes bubbles across the marsh land. As I walk onto the wooden pad way the reeds hiss like snakes. Decay bites my throat. The steely cast of the river of shining water reflects the glumness of the sky.

In a canoe roped to the jetty my cousin Drust sits hunched in his robes. I question what he is doing here, alone.

The river’s song answers. Her visions flood my mind. I see the battle at the ford of roaring water. Broken chariots, tribesmen slaughtered, the hero light vanishing from their eyes like fleeing stars. The eagle standard flies high, reflected in the crimson river. Seeing the pale flicker of their separating ghosts I speak a prayer for the souls doomed to return to a land where they no longer belong.

Sorrow chokes me like bile. I vomit it in anger at Drust, “what are you doing here, when your clan are dead?”

Drust looks up, yet his face remains hidden by his cowl. “I am taking the remnants of our traditions and our gods to the island across the sea.”

I laugh, a throaty brittle sound like twigs twisting and snapping. “Gods are not like saplings, to be taken away and re-rooted and traditions are not nurtured by foreign soils. It seems the ideas of the invaders have penetrated more deeply than I imagined.”

Drust tenses. Drawing my knife from its leather sheath I lean down and slice the rope tying his canoe to the jetty. The river sluices him west and out to sea.

The wind carries enemy voices. Reflected in the falling droplets I see swords and plumed helms. Slipping on the wood and slithering up the hollow way I reach the grove and beg the hawthorns for passage. A peace of ancient green breaks over me, like I’m sinking into a bed of moss. Beneath the canopy’s protective shadow I believe myself safe until tumult disturbs the roots. Crows caw, anticipating carrion.

I cross a sea of acorns and approach the grove’s mighty king. Putting my arms around his trunk, I press my face to the rough bark. “Brother Oak, let me see into the future.”

My heartbeat merges with the pulse of rising sap. My feet become roots reaching downward through damp soil to the outer edges of the grove. My arms stretch into branches and split, bearing bunches of lobed leaves nourished by the hidden sun, washed by the rain, flourishing green.

The ground shudders at the march of soldiers, galloping hooves and chariot wheels. Battle cries are hollered. Bows hum to the crash of metal. Screams and groans rock me. I taste blood and its bitterness fills me.

Earth and water shift as ditches are cut, fields plundered to feed the enemy. Ancestral ghosts clutch my twigs shrieking of their barrow torn down and a temple built to a foreign god. I moan at the ache of rot softening my flesh, bowing and creaking as my branches snap and innards hollow. I beg for lightning’s merciful release but there is no answer from the clouds of sorrow.

“Brother, let me return,” I speak. “The tribe need my support in their defeat.”

I ease back from the oak as the hawthorns scream and turn to see branches broken, shredded leaves and burst haws at the sandaled feet of a man dressed in a plumed helmet, iron breast plate and red woollen tunic. His eyes are blue, skin tanned by the sun of a hotter land. Brandishing a sword stained with blood and sap he accuses me of witchcraft, of sacrificing innocents to divine the future from their death throes.

I smile. The man freezes in horror. I draw my knife and mustering all my oaken might I drive it between the iron plates and slice open his stomach, spilling his guts upon the grass. Attempting to gather them in like rope he drops twitching and groaning to his knees.

I read the future of his people and their empire from his pulsing entrails.

Kneeling, I pick up a handful of blood soaked acorns and address my brother, “do not fear. Whilst tribes and empires rise and fall, the steady strength of oak will conquer all.”

Oak, St Mary's graveyard, Castle Hill